Reporter’s Notebook: CrossFit in Prison

By Andréa Maria Cecil – July 9th, 2018

I was 200 feet away from the prisoners when the commotion started. The men were yelling and laughing.

I tried not to listen. I tried not to hear what they were saying.

But a lull in the ruckus betrayed me. With utmost clarity, I understood what one man barked at me as I walked past.

“Hey, baby, can I get some head?”

The small group erupted in laughter.

I didn’t flinch.

I didn’t cringe.

I didn’t change my gait.

“I’m sorry,” said the prison official on my left.

He looked deeply concerned.

“Don’t worry about it,” I immediately responded.

A few more steps and we were behind heavy sliding metal doors. It was quiet there.

“I’m sorry,” he repeated.

“It’s OK,” I said. “I get it.”

I was near the end of my second nine-hour day at Limon Correctional Facility, a men’s maximum-security prison roughly 100 miles southeast of Denver, Colorado. Men here were locked up for crimes that included murder, rape and assault on police officers. This particular group of men resembled caged animals. Guards were moving them around like cattle.

I got it.

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When we walked into the small, cinderblock-wall room—maximum occupancy 25—we were greeted with wide smiles and vigorous handshakes. The excitement was palpable.

That was typical of a CrossFit Level 1 Certificate Course. Attendees are eager—giddy, even—at the notion of learning from instructors CrossFit Inc. Founder Greg Glassman has dubbed “the best trainers on Earth.”

But there was a notable difference at this course: The attendees had arrived well ahead of Seminar Staff. That never happens. Of course, when the attendees are inmates inside a Level IV state prison, that changes some logistics. Still, all things considered, nothing was remarkable about this course. It was the Level 1 Certificate Course being taught to a group of 10 enthusiastic CrossFit athletes.

From the start, they commiserated over workouts, compared Fran times, and asked pointed questions about power output and progressive scaling.

“These guys are fun,” longtime Seminar Staff member Eric O’Connor said at the start of Day 1.

And they were.

At no point did I feel unsafe or uncomfortable.

All 10 of the Level 1 attendees lived in Unit 6, known as the Incentive Unit at the prison. A spot in Unit 6 requires, among other things, two years without Class 1 convictions, such as assaulting another inmate. These men, I had reasoned before ever entering the state of Colorado, must be behind bars for minor offenses.

“These guys are cool,” I thought to myself that first day. “I could see myself working out with any of ’em.”

When we returned to the hotel that evening, I started Googling their names. That’s when I found their offenses: shooting at police officers, raping and robbing a teenager.

That’s as far as I got.

“I need to stop doing this,” I thought.

The next day, this new knowledge had shockingly little effect on my opinion of the men. Unexpected.

Perhaps it was what I had seen the day before: their class under the moniker Redemption Road Fitness.

There was a coach who explained the agenda, another coach who separately corralled new athletes, a group warm-up and then the workout. Shouts of encouragement could be heard throughout the 90-minute class.

These men had built community with nothing but the “Level 1 Training Guide” to serve as their blueprint. With virtually no internet access, they have never seen videos of Glassman or of Seminar Staff. They’d never heard best practices from affiliate owners or testimonials from affiliate members. This just happened. Organically.

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In the days that followed, being at Limon challenged my thoughts on rehabilitation in prison.

I had walked into that room with little knowledge of the men’s backgrounds and judged them only by who they were on those two days. Because of that, I have found myself hoping they will one day be released while still believing they deserve to be there.

Some might say my thoughts are naïve, that evil isn’t always readily perceptible. Others will argue the perils of making convicted felons stronger and faster or the futility of teaching a Level 1 course to men serving life sentences.

Here’s what I know: Making people better is never a waste of time.

What these inmates created is a shining beacon in a largely failing U.S. prison system that frequently dehumanizes people. Across the country, inmates often leave concrete walls with nothing but a criminal record—no skills, no money and often no friends or family. It’s no wonder one study found nearly 68 percent of 404,638 prisoners released in 30 states were rearrested within three years.

For some Limon prisoners, CrossFit gives them focus. For others, it gives them purpose. Most importantly, it gives them community, which in turn makes them care. As a human being, that matters. You are nothing if you don’t care.

Does rehabilitation in prison work? I don’t know. But CrossFit does.

About the Author: Andréa Maria Cecil is assistant managing editor and head writer of the CrossFit Journal.

All images: Andréa Maria Cecil/CrossFit Journal

This article was originally published on the CrossFit Journal. You can find it here.

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About The Author

Neil Scholtz

Neil Scholtz is a certified Personal Trainer turned CrossFit coach. He has competed at the CrossFit Games and coached athletes that have competed at the CrossFit Games, but that's not his main focus. Most of his time is spent consulting or coaching individuals to improve their lives through fitness. He has worked with over 1000 individuals from various walks of life. Tailoring solutions to their lifestyle needs.