Our Voices > Dispatches from Inside

Therapy by Weightlifting

Dec 20, 2023

By Anthony Mammana

Another morning in prison. They seem to come fast, while sleep comes slowly. Most nights, I close my eyes, but my mind drifts – sometimes for hours – before it surrenders to the night. And as soon as I finally drift off to sleep, some sound or other disturbance pulls me back into awareness.

Most days I resist waking for as long as I can. I lay there in bed half asleep. In that magic hour, I watch my semi-sleeping mind, observing it still processing from the night before. I cling to this hypnagogic state, preferring anything other than the sensory assault of another day: stark, unnatural lighting; colorless desolation; the smell of warehoused humans; the daily cycle of Orwellian-style intercom announcements. It’s the Bureau of Prisons’ unique brand of low-grade, bureaucratic, psychological terrorism.

And in this early-morning state of mind, I linger. I think. I imagine. Ideas for poetry emerge from my tickertape of a muse:

Pride mutes my tongue
Pain excites my mind
Chaos trapped inside me
No comfort I can find

…………………So I write

On this particular morning, my reverie ends with a tap on my leg. It’s my man, Patch, telling me it’s time to wake up and get my shit together. It’s time to work out.

It is back day. The upper and lower back make up one of the largest muscle groups in the body, so it can generate real power. Power that can be therapeutic to harness.

The like-minded men in our building gather behind a locked steel door, waiting for the compound to open and for the move to recreation to be called.

It is, and off we go.

The weight pile at Fort Dix federal prison* is outdoors. It is a cold and windy December day in New Jersey. The pavilion housing the gym is fenced-in, open-air and constantly exposed to the elements. The equipment is old, weathered, rusted: a graveyard of benches, racks and steel plates on plates on plates that animate for just a few hours every day when the inmates arrive.

My partners today are Patch and Red. Patch is tall with a slim, athletic build. His other features include a bald head, goatee and high-quality, well-placed tattoos. Patch lifts weights with the endurance of a runner and the drive of a man working toward some future conquest that may require force.

Red is as tall as Patch but has a very different presence. Red has mass, like a muscle-bound juggernaut built for running through walls. He also has the red hair indicative of his Irish descent, kept close-cropped and military-like. His eyeglasses and disarming smile lend him the air of a bespectacled gorilla just happy to be doing gorilla things in the gym.

Both are good men to have on your team in this environment.

During our workout, Patch keeps the pace, timing the interval between every set and reveling in the intensity his fitness level allows.

At the end of every set, Red piles on more 45-pound plates, adding to what was already heavy and saying things like, “Lightweight!….Come on!” –  psyching himself up for the next lift.

I do my utmost to match my brothers at all times, but today is Red’s day. His ability to bent-over-row 300-plus pounds eclipses the rest of us. My grip strength fails first. Both hands no longer want to open or close. 

It goes on like this for a while.

On the final set, Red is in the bent-over-row position, hitting his heaviest weight yet – struggling with each repetition to pull hundreds of pounds to his chest. Suddenly, blood begins trickling from his nose, dripping onto his hand in the middle of his set. Alarmed and curious, the associations fly in my head. I’ve only seen spontaneous bleeding like this once before, during a power-lifting competition. Near the top of the lift, the athlete’s nose began gushing bright red blood before a stunned audience. The athlete paid it no mind and set the world deadlifting record. It was an impressive display. Red’s bleeding was subdued in comparison, but reminiscent, nonetheless.

I joke with him, saying, “Red, you’re making us look good!” And point out the blood on his hand.

Red stops and wipes it away.

Patch smiles.

Our workout soon ends, but the incident stays on my mind. The warrior/poet in me saw something special in that moment, the honor in this dynamic. I realized that however flawed we may be, we’re all trying to shape our own destinies through whatever path is available to us.

I watched Red push himself hard, possibly even knocking on death’s door. I understood his willingness to self-harm in his fight for progress. He is at war with himself, practicing a sort of kamikaze discipline of self-improvement, smashing his own body against the force of hundreds of pounds of steel — locked in a fight to achieve self-actualization.

In prison, we are all animals trapped in our own tiny circle of existence. It’s all we can do to push back against the walls closing in on us. We become bigger, stronger, angrier. We try harder. We look inward. We turn into warriors in waiting. We wait for the day our preparation meets opportunity.

The need to be something in the eyes of others builds up over time. We use our pain and frustration as a sort of fuel. We do it to better ourselves, but this drive can also become corrupted. It can be used to hurt ourselves, or other people. People can snap psychologically. They can become ideologically radicalized, delusional, even hateful. Have you ever wondered what goes through the minds of kamikaze pilots, or the terrorists who crash their planes into a skyscraper building? These people turn their inner fire into an external explosion. There can be a thin line between being self-destructive and being a mass murderer.

Thus is life,
My country tis of thee.
This is why we bleed for recreation
in the land of the free.

*Fort Dix is a low-security prison. Weights have been removed from institutions with higher security levels.

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