BY TAUNYA ENGLISH
The gym at Riverside Correctional Facility in Philadelphia is through the metal detector, two heavy doors and down the hall.
There’s a basketball court like one you’d see at any high school, except there’s a corrections officer on guard near the 3-point line.
Sixteen stationary bikes are set up in a half circle in the corner. On bike number two, Lakiesha Montgomery, 32, from Philadelphia, is pedaling fast and singing along to the Nicki Minaj’s song “Fly.”
“I didn’t think I’d be able to keep up, I’m not the skinniest thing in the bunch,” she said. But she is keeping up.
In 2011, biking advocates from the nonprofit group Gearing Up persuaded prison administrators to let them bring in bikes to teach indoor cycling. Founder Kristin Gavin says before that she had mentored ex-offenders in the community.
“Over and over I had conversations with women who were saying, ‘While I was incarcerated, I put on 60 pounds, I put on 70 pounds,’” she says. Then she would ask them how long they were in prison and she says they’d typically respond, “six months.”
‘Not a real outside’
At Riverside, Montgomery spends time in the prison yard most days but doesn’t get much exercise there.
“The outside is not a real outside, it’s like a mini garage. They have a basketball court there, but I don’t play basketball. It’s a lot of people that come out so you don’t have room to really jog or walk. It’s like you sit out to just get some air,” she noted.
She has arm tattoos and a sprinkle of freckles across her nose. Her hair is braided back into cornrows. She also has high cholesterol.
Montgomery was charged with assault this year, among other charges, and has been in county jail for about six months.
“First time, last time,” she says. In the meantime, spin class is something to do.
“Keep away frustration being locked up, it helps you get through,” Montgomery remarked.
The Department of Justice surveyed the health of state and federal inmates in 2012 and found that women are more likely than men to be obese.
A study of prison health in Kentucky found greater weight gain for women compared to men.
Women on average gained nearly 11 pounds, men only gained 2.5 pounds.
Gearing Up is working with researchers at Temple University to track the weight and body image of the women who spin at Riverside Correctional. The study was just eight weeks long and small, but they’ve already found small improvements in resting and recovery heart rate — two preliminary measures of heart health.
Gavin says often the women come to class initially to stop gaining weight then later find other reasons to keep coming back.
“I can speak to myself, if I weren’t given the opportunity to be physically active, I’d probably go a little crazy. I probably wouldn’t be able to manage my emotions, my temper, my anger. I think anger management is a huge issue for a lot of women who are in prison; they are victims of trauma and abuse,” Gavin said.
And, of course some of the women have hurt other people.
Exercise can be a way to release all sorts of emotions.
Erica Tibbetts from Gearing Up often leads the spin class.
Tibbetts is in bike shorts. Everyone else has on prison blues: long navy pants and a white T-shirt.
“The worst seems to be women don’t have good sports bras in here,” she related.
Sense of freedom
No one has a water bottle and exercise shorts aren’t allowed. Tibbetts says the women come to class anyway and work with what they have.
Climb on a bike and there’s a sense of freedom, even if you’re not going anywhere.
At the beginning of class, one by one, the women call out their intention for the ride. The ritual is called “clearing.”
Christina wants to leave behind shakedowns. Jean wants to forget “cough and squat.”
Sheik is leaving behind “wrongful mistakes.”
Others want to shake off the past, stress and depression.
At the end of the Gearing Up class, just before the goodbyes and sweaty hugs, there’s one last ritual.
The women share what they’ve brought back from the ride.
One women says she’s “bringing sexy back.” She and everyone around the circle have a wish: “I’m Jean, and I’m bringing back my bikini. I’m Ruth, and I’m bringing back faith and confidence.”
This story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, WHYY and Kaiser Health News.