The Iron Bar: The Modern History of Prison Physical Culture and the Ban on Correctional Weightlifting.
From representations of prison physical culture in movies and televisions shows, mainstream workout regimes, exercise programs, even exercise names such as the “prisoner squat” – muscles and strength building exercises have become associated with the prisoner’s body in various, and often negative ways. Rarely mentioned are discussions about appropriate or health promoting sport and daily recreation programs for prisoners or inmate involvement in prison organized and self-guided bodyweight exercise programs or calisthenics routines. Popular culture tends to show prisoner’s bodybuilding with heavy barbells and dumbbells though in fact there has been a federal weightlifting ban on such activities in the United States since the early 1990’s.
Utilizing a Foucauldian perspective, the aim of this research study was to explore the modern history of prison physical culture to better understand how popular perceptions of the muscular inmate body - embedded within the disciplines of criminology and penology - influence opportunities for physical activity in correctional facilities. I focused on the recent correctional weightlifting ban enacted in the United States to gain insight into the potential influence of body typing theories, specifically somatotyping (suggesting a link between criminality and muscular physiques), on the construction of contemporary prison physical culture. Working from a critical socio-historical perspective, I worked to add to the limited knowledge of prison physical culture, research on types of physical activity available in correctional facilities and the corporeal experience of those confined to prison.
Overall very little information exists to illuminate general attitudes toward prison physical culture and measure opportunities for physical activity in correctional facilities. The following research questions will guide my study: (1) How have historical perceptions of the muscular criminal body influenced penal policy? (2) In particular, what have been the influences of body profiling and somatotyping on the role of weightlifting in prisons? Insights into these questions will allow me to better understand the reasoning behind the enactment of the 1994 weightlifting ban placed on prison physical culture within the United States. In particular, I will use one particular case study, San Quentin Correctional Facility to estimate the effects of this weightlifting ban on contemporary prison physical culture.
Although it is not known exactly when the practice of weightlifting was tolerated in American corrections, other forms of physical practice can be traced to the beginning of the modern penal movement of the 18th century. An example of a physical technique in this period of “penal enlightenment” was the “tread-wheel” developed by Sir William Cubitt in 1818 and was used to rehabilitate inmates through hard physical labor and solitary confinement (Shayt, 1989).
During the mid 1800’s American prisons underwent many shifts in correctional practice, including the introduction of recreational sports into some prisons (McKelvey, 1968). Described as fundamental in the new era of corrections, Elmira Reformatory in New York opened in 1876 as one of the first adult “reformatories” for offenders, and for years lead the American reformatory system in the application of modern theories of criminology (Smith, 1988), and use of innovative physical practices as “methods of reform” (Pisciotta, 1983).
While “prison athletics … presaged a new era in prison discipline” (McKelvey, 1968, p.229), organized sports programs did not become a feature in the adult penitentiary system until the early 20th century. During this time there have been significant changes in penal ideology in the United States, however far too little is known about the history, development and present day prison physical culture. As a result of high rates of incarceration and recidivism, beginning in the mid 1980’s and early 1990’s a shift in correctional philosophy and ideas of improvement resulted in a new penal focus for American corrections. Higher value was placed on punishment, denouncement and incapacitation as opposed to the more traditional correctional goals of rehabilitation. Coupled with the enormous growth in the prison population at the time, and the public fervor for the “get tough on crime” rhetoric (Tepperman, 2011), many states began to limit inmate privileges and activities – in particular, prison weightlifting (Hanser, 2012).
To date, very few researchers have discussed prison weightlifting, or addressed those influences which lead to the weightlifting ban. It has been regarded by some scholars as a result of a societal “moral panic” and a product of harsh punitive penal reform (Pawelko & Anderson, 2011); while other research speculates that the ban can be attributed to the popular media’s construction and representation of weightlifting and prisons (Tepperman, 2011). Tepperman (2011) asserts that central to the ban was an “ethos of panic” regarding weightlifting’s ability to construct physically larger, more powerful and aggressive inmates (Wagner, McBride & Crouse, 1997). The impact of this language and the encompassing ideologies regarding the “super breed” of muscular criminals (Foster, 1995) can thus be seen to be integral to the prison weightlifting ban (Tepperman, 2011).
It is important to note that ideas regarding the muscular inmate body are not simply a creation of the “No Frills movement” and the prison weightlifting ban – they can be found deep within the field of criminology, and in many respects, these perceptions echo ideas of body typing and biocriminality. Since the 18th century there has been inquiry into the relationship between body type and criminality, specifically addressing the idea that criminals typically embody a mesomorphic or muscular physique. Scholars note the importance of examining the historical origins of the various viewpoints within constitutional theory and body typing “to understand the origins, acceptance, and maintenance of criminological ideas” (Rafter, 2007, p. 805), however little research has investigated the influence of criminological ideas on penal policy, prison physical culture and inmates’ opportunities for physical activity.
Without a better understanding of prison physical culture and the identification of important influencing ideologies there remains an absence of context regarding the socio-historical and institutional conditions that govern particular forms of physical activity in correctional facilities. As a result the proposed research will add a socio-historical perspective of physical practices in prison to enhance our limited knowledge of prison physical culture and highlight those factors which have impacted opportunities for physical activity including the weightlifting ban within the United States.
Excerpt From: Felkar, V. (2016). “The Iron Bar. The Modern History of Prison Physical Culture and the Correctional Weightlifting Ban”. Stadion 40 (2014): 19-37.
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