Lifting weights in an American prison means joining a culture unlike any seen in a free-world gym, full of crudely welded pig iron and rust. Men forsake masturbation to improve their bench-press stats and consume cans of Jack Mack, the cheapest tinned fish in the world, along with the filthy broth it's packed in for every one of the 72.5 grams of protein promised on the label. It's a manly, aggressive universe with rules and customs of its own. I lived it for 10 years.
Walking into the main yard of a maximum-security prison for the first time is an unforgettable experience. I was instantly reminded of Flemish paintings in which sinners toil in hell. A thousand sweaty, shirtless men groaning and cursing over a bunch of rusty iron and home-welded equipment looks much more like torture or the opening credits of a certain type of blue film than exercise.
But exercise it is, and lifting weights is practically a religion in American prisons. Considering the limitations on supplements and equipment, the prisoners have thought of some truly ingenious ways to get themselves jacked. Sometimes too jacked. In the mid-'90s, a number of states enacted bans on weightlifting; the prison systems of Wisconsin, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Florida, and even California all removed at least some of the weightlifting equipment that had been in their yards for years, according to Alex Tepperman's research. Georgia alone unburdened itself of 150 tons of steel.