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Beetle walks away from the rack and carefully wraps his knees with bandages for support. Sweat beads that look like blisters appear on his forehead. "If I don't get out, I will continue to lift and try to inspire kids not to choose this route," he says. "I could tell them about prison life, about not having an identity. I could tell them about the pressure. I could tell them that, in here, you're not really considered human anymore."
Stop for a moment and think about this: Killers lifting weights, getting stronger, outgrowing their clothes (Beetle is an expert tailor, which enables him to alter his prison garb to fit as he grows brawnier), men of violence developing the means to commit further violence. Terrifying, eh? Guards at the Oahu Community Correctional Center in Hawaii won't even let most of the inmates get near the shiny new Universal weight machine in the yard. "The guards don't want the prisoners to be bigger than they are," says OCCC administrator Beryl Iramina. Yet athletics may be the most beneficial aspect of prison life. And so much of it starts with lifting. Getting stronger. First physically, then mentally. What could be more primitive or therapeutic than hoisting something heavy?
Still, Beetle isn't sure he wants to be a hero for his efforts. A champion, yes. But he knows you do time alone, that fans and flatterers can't help, that trophies are just junk. If he stays inside for the rest of his life, as he might, all the records he sets will be only markers of the passing time, like the myriad pencil slashes on the walls of the Pit. Former Georgia State Prison convict and current religious author-lecturer Warren Morris says that far from supporting—much less idolizing—one another, prisoners are normally antagonistic toward their fellows. "They hate each other," says Morris. "Inmates usually pull for outsiders. That's something people don't understand." Are Beetle's fellow inmates for him or against him? Does it make any difference how they feel?
Beetle squats with 600 pounds. Then 725. His face looks as though it might explode. He tells the others to put 800 pounds on the bar.
Beetle stands under the bar and stares into nothingness. Some inmates insult his manhood. They hoot and scream. "He's tightening his belt," Felton says quietly to the video camera's built-in mike. "He's lifting the straps of his suit...."
Beetle grabs the bar, lets it sink into his unpadded shoulders and takes two tiny steps backward. His entire body shakes. He drops quickly into a squat, and the wraps look as though they are cutting his legs in half. He slowly rises, veins bulging like baby snakes on his temples and forearms, the weight bouncing slightly on his shoulders. It is hard to tell if the screaming inmates are rooting for him to rise or to crash to the floor. "Never surrender!" yells Smash. "Make a way!"
Beetle quivers and strains and, slowly, ever so slowly, stands up straight and puts the bar back on the rack. He has lifted the front end of a small car. His eyes are still not precisely focused. An inmate quickly unwraps his knees. Within seconds the din dies away and the others continue their workouts as though nothing has happened. But for an instant there, Beetle looked as if he were free.
Ah, freedom. What a word. It may be the hardest in the world to define, for who can say when freedom has come or gone, or whether one really wants it when it arrives? Indeed, Byron's prisoner of Chillon grew to love his "very chains" and feared only his release from his dank, pillared dungeon. One would think that having known the liberation of competition and the joy of success, athletes would be particularly loathe to end up in the slammer. And yet there are superb athletes moldering away across the U.S. penal system, with every prison claiming its own sports legend.
At the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing, there's a 45-year-old weight-lifting, basketball-dunking fool who has been in for 22 years. His name is Alfred (Jump) Jones, and last summer he hit a softball 393 feet—far enough to clear the prison wall. Jones is also notable for having no tongue; he bit it off when he crashed his car while being pursued by the police. He's doing life for first-degree murder. The Kansas state pen also boasts a one-handed athlete named Frank Lucas. Lucas, 38, who has served 19 years for robbery, assault and possession of stolen property, lost his hand when he intervened in a prison fight and was brutally stabbed. Inmates who knew him before the accident say he is a better basketball and softball player now than when he had two hands.
But then, it is always hard to get at the truth in prison. With so much time to sift and re-create the past, the inmates themselves quite often don't know what's true anymore. Once, during a visit to Stateville Prison in Joliet, Ill., inmate after inmate spoke to a reporter with certainty about how he was either completely rehabilitated or needed only someone out on the street—someone smart, someone, hey, just like a reporter—to do legwork for him, to find that elusive witness, the guy who would prove it was all a setup, a bum rap. When a prison official heard about this, he just laughed. "Didn't you know?" he said. "Nobody's guilty in prison."