Jail-House Workouts: Killing Time (New Veins)

A Preamble and Explanation:

It is often a habit of those who have had an extended stay in jail and/or prison to talk excessively about jail and/or prison. (I’ve only been to county thank god and I owe this mostly to Judge “Go-Home” Gibson’s thought process: Well… he’s seems smart, shows genuine remorse, and is… WHITE. Time served and 2 years intensive felony probation! …sound of gavel slamming on wood…) Obviously, there can be a multitude of reasons for this disquieting behavior, but one of the most fundamental is that it is an important and indelible time in anyone’s life. Perhaps not a positive experience, but memorable nonetheless. One of the most striking is jail’s unique juxtaposition of long stretches of utter boredom interspersed with moments of intense action and violence. The only other experience with comparable attributes is war. Or so I’ve heard. (Obviously, I am not comparing them in terms of danger and honor but only in their experiential reality.) Also, there is the preconceived notion most people have about jail as something to be feared, somewhere they hope to never wake up at. And once one makes it through such an experience there is a sort of relief, an awe at having been there and survived. In Down and Out In London and Paris, George Orwell explores this thought process (as regards abject poverty) and sums it up nicely (I’m paraphrasing here) as something you have always feared so much so – wondering how you would handle it – that when it finally comes about there is almost a feeling of elation at having been through it and survived. It’s something akin to the way junkies, active and recently recovered, pervert their shame into a sort of competitive pride as regards their level of degradation: “I had a gram-a-day habit man…” “Okay, dude, but have you ever SHOT crack before?” Obviously not anything anyone should be proud of, but, amongst the initiated, they function as war-stories. A way to brag about just how far over the edge you’ve been. If you’ve done it, you might as well own it. I’ve even heard inmates one-upping each-other over the length of previous incarcerations. All of it just a coping mechanism: a way to lend tragedy and disaster a sense of purpose – to gain meaning from the absurd. I’ve done it myself. Look, here I go, talking/writing about jail again, trying to make worthwhile what on the surface seems like an immense waste of time, but which may have been the best thing that ever happened to me… And so here is the first sub-section of what is sure to be an ongoing topic:

Jail-House Workouts: Killing Time (New Veins)

“I’m fresh out of jail so you know a nigga’s swoll…” -Pimp C- RIP

Even at the start of my stay, dopesick down in C.R. (Central Receiving), I would do some tentative, not at all pleasant, body-weight exercises. There wasn’t much else to do and I’d read somewhere that squats help to regulate body temperature while also releasing endorphins, thus alleviating the soreness of muscles (mostly the legs for me) that comes with heavy opiate withdrawal. It was also one of the few activities available to me in jail that could be called “proactive.” It was the ONLY activity available down in C.R. besides bullshitting, meal time, watching t.v., and pestering the C.O.’s (correctional officers) to hurry my classification. However, there were no reading materials available besides admission papers and a small “inmate handbook” that listed all the rules you must abide by, the rights you have, and a section on how to avoid rape and the owing of sexual favors (stay out of debt). I couldn’t write because the small annoyingly flexible pens available to the inmates weren’t given out until after classification. I didn’t enjoy talking with most of my fellow inmates and I didn’t and still don’t enjoy watching Pawn Stars, basketball, or television at all, so exercising was something to occupy the sudden glut of free time I had. It is also horribly cold in C.R. during winter, not to mention while dopesick, and there is no such thing as “an extra blanket.” Every inmate is issued the same bedding and clothing. Any extras found are considered contraband; an extra pair of boxers or socks could land you in the hole. Thus it began: a time killer, a natural anesthetic, and a body warmer.

I was so sick, weak, and underweight that I could barely muster 20 squats or 10 push-ups at a time. Along with the general weirdness and anxiety that accompanies the return of sobriety, I was slightly embarrassed at how far I had let myself go and I would shut my cell door to grunt out these little sets and then wander around the day room until the pain subsided and I had caught my breath. It wasn’t even enough to make me sweat. Not that I could tell, for every twenty minutes or so my body would dredge up a toxic stinking sweat that would instantly become a cold clammy lather over the whole of my skin. These intense shifts in temperature would wrack my body with uncontrollable shivers that seemed to be centered around my spine. I wasn’t alone though. At any given time, (I spent 7 days in C.R. – an unusually long wait) 8 out of the 10 inmates in C.R. were opiate addicts entering the first stages of withdrawal. You could admit you were a total fucking junky and be given a pitifully low dose of Tramadol (a pseudo-opiate and painkiller), but to do so would also get you locked up in an isolation cell for 12 days. Most opted to go cold turkey in the relative freedom of C.R. So there we were, a room full of sick junkies, pupils wildly dilated, some taking turns puking up their meals in the trash can, all shivering and trying not to think about our present situation. Someone in the medical pod next door took pity on us and slid a pair of shower shoes under the steel and glass partition and we all took turns taking long scalding hot showers; the only thing that seemed to help. I’d do my pathetic sets of exercises and get back in line for the shower until third shift headcount and then, relegated to my dark cell, I’d lay under my scratchy blanket, fully clothed in my baggy scrubs like a child who had stolen a nurses uniform, and wait for the mercy that is sleep.

It wasn’t until after I’d been classified to the 4th floor, maximum security (i.e. prison training ground), that I began to take my work-outs seriously. I originally turned myself in to do 23 days for shoplifting RedBull (I’d sell it to convenience stores for a dollar a can), but within the first 3 days a detective had visited me and saddled me with two felony charges for burglary and theft. The Willoughby police had posted surveillance footage of me on their Facebook page and over 30 complete strangers correctly identified me. My criminal record combined with the new felony charges got me classified to the 4th floor, where almost everyone was going to or had been to prison. Things are a little more real on the 4th floor. Within the first month a 250 pound beast of a man picked a fight with all one-hundred-and-forty-pounds of me, for no real reason. It mostly boiled down to the fact that he was angry at the prospect of facing so much time, he was a black dope dealer, I was a white junky, and that I didn’t take his shit passively. I knew I would get my skinny ass kicked, but when I stood up to him he didn’t want to fight face to face. This made him look “bitch-made” to his friends. Having been to prison it was something he couldn’t let go. All you have in there is your reputation. So he waited until I had sat down on the bunk of my “friend’s” cell and came rushing in and “stole” on me. (Stole on: slang for sucker punch or any blow delivered by stealth. They say Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow. In jail there are dozens of ways to describe violence and the martial arts. “Take off on,” “take flight on,” and “steal on” being my personal favorites.) My head bounced off the concrete wall making my eyes and ears go funny. He tried to close the cell door to trap me in there with him but somehow I got up and elbowed him in the chin and out the cell. I was surprised when he just took off running. I don’t think he expected me to be able to fight back at all. Anyway, this, combined with the very real prospect of going to prison, gave me a new perspective on my current situation. I was determined to get my weight and strength back up so as to be better able to defend myself.

After serving my original 23 day sentence I got out on bond for the new charges. I don’t know what the judge was thinking. I didn’t deserve to be back on the streets nor was I ready for them. No more than 10 hours later I was back in county after OD’ing on a very small amount of heroin. I was well aware that the newly sober are at high risk of overdosing, as their tolerance is completely reset and the same amount of drugs that it used to take to get high can now kill them. I was wary of this happening to me and took less than I had taken the first time I ever got high. I was not aware, however, that during the 23 days I spent in jail a batch of heroin cut with fentanyl (an extremely potent and fast-acting analgesic and opiate) had hit the streets and was causing many junkies to overdose. I became one of those junkies. Fentanyl doesn’t have any “legs” (duration) but the rush is extremely intense. The last thing I remember was saying “damn this is good shit…” and then I woke up struggling with paramedics in the back of an ambulance. At the hospital, the pig watching over me informed me that if I tried to run he would taze me and proceeded to try and get me to tell on myself. I refused to admit that I had done heroin (a breaking of the conditions of my bond), but they took blood while I was unconscious and it came back positive. In the wake of the heroin epidemic, Ohio law had been changed to allow the police to charge junkies, who had OD’d, with heroin possession if they admitted it or if their blood tested positive for opiates. My bond was revoked and I was charged with another felony, but there was a part of me that was relieved to be back in jail and alive. I recognized that I needed some time away from everything to get my head and physiology back to a state where I would have a fighting chance of staying sober. It turned out that this new charge (Felony 5 Heroin Possession) actually helped my case, for it explained the original charge (Felony 2 Burglary). I also knew I couldn’t afford to wait until I got out of jail to work on myself. Along with training for the inevitable violence of prison, I was determined to make the most of my time. I decided then that I would use this time to get my head straight, write, and workout. I started my regimen in the Wickliffe city jail before I was even transferred back to county. Truthfully, I hardly remember my stay in the Wickliffe jail for the Narcan (an opiate antagonist effectively used to counteract overdoses and save lives by blocking the brain’s opiate receptors) eventually wore off and I became extremely nose-scratchingly high again. I only know I worked out because my legs and chest were painfully sore the next day. (Side Note: Wickliffe city jail has THE best book selection of any institution I’ve ever been in. They had Bukowski’s Ham on Rye. They wouldn’t let me take it to county though, so I finished it overnight before I was transferred.)

Jesus. I could go off on tangents without end. It is amazing how something that seems so simple on the surface (i.e. jail: you are locked in a concrete block cell and that’s about it) is really only a facade and is actually an amazingly complex and multi-faceted experience. Anyway, what I am driving at is that I had some very real reasons to spend a significant amount of my time working out. It helped that I already possessed a rudimentary understanding of how to build muscle through exercise and diet and over the next few weeks I fell into a routine that I would follow until my release 7 months later. Obviously, I was restricted in the type of exercises I could engage in but an excess of time and need breeds ingenuity and I found ways to workout all the major muscle groups of my body.

The core of most inmate’s workouts are push-ups. Everyone wants big, overly defined pecs and they will often almost exclusively focus on them. However it is a mistake to focus too much time on the pecs and the same thing goes for any one muscle group. Pecs aren’t just vanity muscles like the biceps mostly are, but when you are actually concerned with building up your punch, you’d do better to focus on your shoulders, legs, and back. Huge man-tits alone aren’t going to break jaws and put people to sleep. A punch doesn’t originate from the upper body or the arms. Any substantial force behind a closed fist starts with the push-off from the toes and the rotation of the hips that transfers this energy through the shoulder and down the arm into the fist. All the knock-out artists I know have huge thighs and backs and at least formidable shoulders. And they instinctively know how to concentrate their power in quick economical bursts of movement. Wild flailing hay-makers can do some damage but they are a waste of precious energy and too often telegraph the punch to the intended target. And, so, I narrowed my workouts to the 4 main muscles groups that make up a heavy punch: squats and calf-raises for legs, various angled push-ups for the chest, pull-ups for the back, and shoulder-presses for the shoulders.

To get the most unpleasant workout out of the way, day one would be legs. In jail, just as it is in the real world, legs are all too often neglected in favor of the upper-body. It always amazed me to see so many top-heavy lugs walking around the jail. In some extreme cases, their thighs would literally be thinner than their arms. I didn’t doubt that they could still do substantial damage, but I also knew that as they were missing half of the equation I had less to worry about with them. I didn’t want to be one of those unsymmetrical top-heavy freaks. Also, the legs compose a huge portion of your body weight and I needed all the pounds I could get. I started off doing 5 sets of 20 squats and worked my way up to 10 sets of 70 squats at a time. Compared to all the other workouts it was an extremely strenuous exercise, but I learned there was a pay-off to be had: half way through my set I would begin to feel an electric high, made up of endorphin’s and testosterone, coursing through my body. A more intense version of the runner’s high. I pushed so hard that my sweat had a different, muskier odor to it and I would often feel lightheaded. I was always more hesitant to begin my workout on leg day, but was left feeling much more accomplished. After the squats, I would round out the workout with a couple hundred calf-raises. This is exactly what it sounds like: you push up till you’re on your “tippy-toes,” then slowly back down again and repeat. I would do them up the 18 stairs to the mezzanine and back down, but my calves never got bigger. I have skinny calves. That’s just the way it is.

I had a similar trouble with my shoulders as well. They didn’t seem to want to grow, partly due to the fact that my right rotator-cuff is still (and probably always will be) jacked up from a drunken accident years ago. Once your rotator-cuff is injured it will always bother you. I was scared I might injure it more severely, but I pushed through the incessant throbbing and did my shoulder-presses balanced in a handstand against the wall. I found the trick was to go only so far down, no more than a ninety-degree angle at the elbow, to keep from fucking it up further. Because of this, it was my lightest workout and I never made much progress. To balance out this shortcoming in my workout for the day, I would do 10 sets of 10 hanging leg raises. This is without doubt the most efficient exercise you can do to work your stomach. No other ab exercise isolates both the upper and lower portions of this muscle group as effectively. In comparison, it is almost a complete waste of time to do crunches. While I could do nearly a hundred crunches in a row, I could barely do 3 or 4 reps when I first attempted the leg raises, but my perseverance paid off immensely for I noticeably increased the strength of both my stomach and forearm grip.

Day 3 was back day. I could tell some of the guys who had done substantial prison time by the “V” shape of their backs. The “V” referring to the taper from the shoulders down to the waist. Due to the lack of free-weights in prison nowadays, inmates who workout seriously almost always incorporate what they call “bar work” into their regimens. These exercises are often neglected in the free world, even by serious weight-lifters. “Bar work” is primarily composed of pull-ups, as well as chin-ups and the leg-lifts I mentioned before. I know of no other exercise that isolates the “wings” (the outer back muscles on either side of the rib cage) as effectively as pull-ups do. The difference between pull-ups and chin-ups is simply grip position (knuckles facing in for pull-ups and out for chin-ups), but puts the bulk of the strain on two different groups of muscle. Chin-ups use the biceps to help the lift, while pull-ups almost exclusively use the “wings.” As a general rule, those who can do over 10 pull-ups in a row are more dangerous than those that can consecutively do a decent amount of push-ups. (I’d rather fight a guy with huge man-tits over one with a hulking back. I cite from experience.) They also workout a lot of different muscles that would be neglected otherwise. There is no pull-up bar in county jail, though, just as there is no yard. Most inmates at the county jail are relegated to a two-tiered pod which houses 11-12 cells. You only go to rec, if you’re lucky, twice a week and the rec-room consists of a janky basketball hoop in an empty room with a low ceiling and pads on the wall. However, in each pod there is a staircase made of metal grating, but it is painful and very difficult to grip the grating barehanded. Luckily, you can buy an extra pair of shower-shoes on commissary and take the pads of these sandles and fold them over the grates. Every inmate who worked out had one pair of shower shoes for showering and another tong-less pair for bar work. I could barely complete 3 repetitions of pull-ups on the stairs when I first started but this increased to almost 20 by the end of my stay. I had never even thought of or noticed my “wings” before, but after 7 months they seemed like a new group of muscle that had not existed before.

Day 4 was chest. While push-ups may not be the end-all-be-all of working out, they, nevertheless, serve as an integral component of any well-rounded regimen. I’ve know I’ve derided them somewhat, but without them you would be missing some large and important muscle groups. Obviously, they mostly build up the chest but they also workout the triceps and some muscles in the back. To get the most out of push-ups I did them in a variety of hand positions and body angles. The wider you place your hands the more you work out the back, while a close stance focuses more on the triceps and inner chest. You can also isolate the upper and lower chest through different angles. When you prop your feet up and position your shoulders below your waist, you focus the strain on the oft neglected upper chest. Leaning over a bench or desk, with your shoulders above your waist, isolates the lower, most visible, portion of the chest.

I did all the different positions and angles for I had learned my push-up regimen from an inmate who had been incarcerated many times in his life: a crackhead at the tail end of a six month bid for possession. He claimed to sell rock rather than smoke it, but you could tell by his lack of teeth and mannerisms that he had been a feverish glass-dick sucker. Six months of sobriety and working out had swollen his body with thick muscle but his face still looked as if it had just come from a month long binge. The juxtaposition of his muscular body with his permanently gaunt and sucked-in crackhead cheeks made for an odd disconnect.

I did not doubt that, given the chance, he would rob me without hesitation if he ever got back on the shit, but sober, he was an amazingly funny, giving, and compassionate human-being. I don’t believe he had anyone on the outside (or they were extremely poor or fed-up with his bullshit) for he never had money on his books for commissary. Without those extra calories it is crazy difficult to make any gains from working out. The jail administration must have figured out the exact amount of calories it takes to keep an inmate from starving and going crazy. On just the county meals he’d never have gotten so big. But he had a little hustle going and although he couldn’t read (I used to read him articles in the newspaper that he was interested in), he was an amazing artist. With just a floppy jail pen and the coloring from the shells of peanut M&M’s he would sketch and then paint greeting card-worthy images on envelopes for other inmates. Depending on the season, he would paint artwork for various holidays (Santa Claus and mistletoe’s for Christmas, rabbits for Easter, etc.) or the favorite images of the buyer’s children or significant other (hearts wrapped in razor wire seemed to be popular). They would pay him for these personalized envelopes with Ramen Cup-O-Soups, flavored oatmeal packets, summer sausages, potato-chips (The Whole Shebang!), or more peanut M&M’s with which to continue his trade. He drew me a picture of The Hulk fighting the alien from Predator for some reason and I carried it with me until I left jail and lost all my paperwork. He was the only inmate I ever worked-out with. I didn’t make too many other friends. We would do 8 sets of 6 different types of push-ups at ten or so reps per position. Our rest between sets was a walk from one wall in the day room to the other and back again. I carried this habit over to all my other work-outs and to this day I still pace back and forth between sets.

I wanted my abs to be a visible reminder of all my hard work and effort so towards the end of my stay I started a cardio regimen to burn off all the extra stomach fat that accumulated over 6 months of eating, what amounted to, high-school lunches and preservative-laden snack foods. This consisted of running the stairs, leg-lifts, and jumping jacks. I’d tie hairbands around my feet to keep my Bob Barker’s (jail issued slip on shoes. Yes, the brand name is “Bob Barker”) from slipping off and then I’d run and grunt and sweat through it all for an hour everyday after I had done my usual body-weight exercises. I’d do this in the late afternoon because most inmates sleep until lunch and I understood sleep to be a precious commodity. Any undue noise that may wake an inmate is possible grounds for a fistfight and I had already spent enough time nursing my wounds in the hole. Working out actually lessened the chance of this happening for it relieved stress and most inmates were a little more reluctant to start shit with a guy who worked out 3 hours a day (Though that doesn’t mean anything. I’ve seen flabby layabouts battle an athletic adversary under the stairs for nearly ten minutes and whip the living dog-shit out of them.) Altogether, I think I cut 10 pounds before I left and came out of jail 30 pounds heavier at 170 pounds. If I had been on my way to prison I would have continued to eat heavy and gain weight, but I was pretty sure I wouldn’t have to physically defend myself as often out in the free world. Except for one instance at a bar (of course) this proved to be a correct assumption.

The only things that have changed, as regards working-out while in the free world, is I now train with weights, eat healthier food, can listen to music, and new veins have worked their way up from the muscle to the skin. Before I started using, I had “ropes” (heavy bulging veins in the crook of the elbow and along the biceps) but, over time, I lost them all. So abused they just receded down among the muscle. After months of working out and not jabbing myself with needles, new skinnier, slighter veins, having assumed they are safe from abuse, have wormed their way to the surface of my skin. Altogether though, I’d have to say the availability of music probably makes the biggest difference. Do not underestimate the energy to be harvested from heavy metal and gangster rap. The best I could hope for in jail was for someone to be watching The Departed or Forrest Gump and to catch Shipping Up to Boston, Gimme Shelter, or That Smell at a high volume. For the first time in a very long while, I think it’s safe to say thing’s are improving.


(Drugs and Culture)


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