Prison Weightlifting Perks Weigh on Legislators’ Minds : Crime: Some lawmakers contend that allowing inmates to bulk up makes them more dangerous criminals. But proponents say the privilege boosts self-esteem and can be a disciplinary tool.


Yes, he’s a convicted murderer. Yes, he’s a big, muscular guy. Yes, the barbells he hefts each day in a prison gym make him even bigger and stronger.

But inmate Paul Douglas Crawford sees no reason for people to consider him a menace--nor any reason to ban weightlifting in prisons, as some lawmakers in Congress and several states are suggesting.

“This isn’t about violence,” said Crawford, taking a breather during a recent weightlifting competition at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center. The gym was filled with sweating, straining men, and Crawford, 46, was reveling in it.


When he got locked up 18 years ago, he weighed 195 pounds and was weak from alcohol and drugs. Pumping iron has added 75 pounds of rippling muscle to his 6-foot-3-inch frame.

“This is my self-esteem,” he said. “It makes me feel I’ve recovered from my past. These people who want to take weightlifting away--what are they trying to say? That we’re animals? That we’ll never change? I believe you can change. All the tools are here for rehabilitation, and weightlifting is one of the tools. That’s how I see it.”

Others see it differently.

Crawford’s hobby has become a target for tough-on-crime legislators determined to put the punishment back in prison by making life behind bars less pleasant. Amenities from cable TV to girlie magazines are under fire, but of all prison perks, weightlifting seems to rankle critics the most.

The image of a beefy ex-con, his muscles bulked up by daily workouts in a prison gym, cuts to the core of Americans’ fear of crime and frustration with the justice system.


“Too many criminals spend their time in prison becoming even more violent, criminal machines,” said Rep. Steve Chabot, a freshman Republican from Ohio. “We need more books in prison and less weightlifting equipment.”

Chabot’s amendment to remove barbells and weight machines from federal prisons is part of a crime package passed Feb. 10 by the House. The Senate has yet to act on a similar proposal.


Many state and local officials are not waiting for Congress. In the past year, weightlifting equipment has been ordered removed from state prisons in Arizona, Wisconsin and Mississippi.

California’s Contra Costa and Los Angeles counties removed weightlifting equipment from some of their jails, and the state Assembly ordered corrections officials to limit inmates’ access to weights in state prisons.

Legislators in Ohio, North Carolina and South Carolina are considering bills to ban weights from their prisons. Here in Washington, there’s a proposal to limit weight-room access to organized teams.

Such measures are long overdue, said Mike Tussey, a patrol officer in Westerville, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus. Tussey said street cops often can easily spot the fresh release from prison--he swaggers along with a hardened stare and a T-shirt stretched tight by bulging, tattooed biceps.

Responding one day to a domestic-violence call, Tussey encountered a 240-pound hulk with a prison-polished physique and a bad attitude.

“He grabbed me by my gun belt, picked me up, and threw me headfirst into a wall,” said Tussey, who weighs 225 pounds. “I lift weights, but obviously not as much as the people who are in prison.”


Weights also can cause problems inside prison.

During a 1993 riot at Ohio’s maximum-security prison in Lucasville, inmates used weights to smash through the walls of two supposedly secure stairwells, where they killed an inmate and took three guards hostage.

Last March in New York City’s crowded Rikers Island jail, inmates attacked guards with weights and benches, injuring 16 prison officers.


If such incidents show the worst side of prison weightlifting, the competition here at Clallam Bay displayed its best. The meet, sponsored by the American Drug-Free Powerlifting Assn., gave inmates a chance to interact with lifters from outside the medium- and maximum-security prison.

Amid the clank of weights and loud grunts of lifters, the four inmates and 13 visiting athletes traded tips and helped one another squeeze into their tight uniforms.

Some corrections officials oppose weightlifting, saying bulked-up prisoners intimidate guards and other inmates. But staff members here were enthusiastic about its potential for rehabilitating prisoners.

“It helps them in goal-setting, in discipline,” said recreation leader Jon Krause. “It helps them get through pain to achieve a goal. That experience from the weight room can stick with them after they’re released.”


Not that members of the Clallam Bay Powerlifting Team are model citizens. Crawford got three years for strong-arm robbery in 1973, then shot and killed a jewelry-store owner while out on parole in 1975. He’s up for release in five years.

Since January, three inmates have been suspended from the team for infractions, including one who tried to incite a riot in the gym.

But Krause said that’s a good example of how prison officials use weightlifting privileges to keep inmates in line.

“It’s a great motivator,” he said. “If they mess up, they’re off the team. It helps channel out a positive attitude.”

Washington’s secretary of corrections agreed, calling the debate over barbells “much ado about nothing.” Chase Riveland said banning weights is a symbolic gesture that can create more strife in prison than it relieves.

Weightlifters watch their diet and health, which is more than most offenders do before they’re locked up, Riveland said.


“We get people in terrible shape,” he said. “They are substance abusers. Their nutrition is terrible. They’ve been exposed to a large number of communicable diseases. If we can get these people living healthier lifestyles, it’s better for the state and the individual.”

Weightlifting, like any exercise, helps inmates blow off steam in the stress-filled environment of prison, Riveland said.

As for the danger posed to the public by pumped-up ex-cons, Riveland noted that most violent crimes are committed with weapons. “Big or small makes little difference when someone has a gun in their hand,” he said.

The debate pits those who believe rehabilitation can work against those who see the suffering when it doesn’t.

“If they dealt with crime victims like we do, I think they would change their opinion,” said Ted Gogol of the Law Enforcement Alliance of America. The coalition of police and crime victims is spearheading the drive for a weightlifting ban in federal prisons.

If prisoners need exercise, let them do aerobics or calisthenics, Gogol said. They’ll stay fit, but without heavy barbells or weight machines, they won’t be able to achieve the buffed-out strength of bodybuilders.


“We have no problem with inmates exercising, but to build them up into more powerful criminals . . . makes absolutely no sense,” Gogol said.

While inmate Crawford vows to behave once he’s out, Gogol points to the thousands of offenders who don’t. A 1989 federal study concluded that six of every 10 ex-cons are arrested again within three years of their release.

No studies show whether pumping iron affects that recidivism rate. But the way Gogol sees it, society can choose between ex-cons with normal builds or ex-cons who look like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“In a dark alley,” he asked, “who would you rather face?”