You say it to yourself every time you enter one of these joints. Doors clang or roll or buzz shut behind you, and you think, "If I really had to, if I really really had to, I could do time. Not that I want to, God help me, God help any man who crosses the river into darkness. But if I had to—with the help of sports, maybe—I could do time. I'm sure I could...."
Who is this man? My name is Gregory Lowe, a/k/a Beetle. I'm incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution, Graterford, Pa. I'm five-foot-six, I weigh 238 lbs. I'm a hungry new lifter. I'm the Ohio Valley Teamsters Prison Postal Meet National Champion in the 242-lb. class. Good competition is hard to find.... I'm calling out to all area lifters in the 242-lb. class. Are you man enough to come in and challenge me? Come on with it.
Beetle—subject and author of that missive, which he sent to lifting clubs and newspapers all over the mid-Atlantic area—stands now with his fellow thieves and murderers amid the tools of their trade, bars and iron. The room is called the Pit, which is exactly what it should be called. The Pit is filled with weights and the sour odor of sweat and the even more acrid odor of penance. It is eight steps down from the main level of the Graterford prison, a dark, aging structure that sits on a rise overlooking the Perkiomen Creek, 31 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Graterford has 2,539 inmates, only 500 more than capacity; that is quite low for an American prison, since almost all are overflowing from an unchecked torrent of criminals.
The main walls at Graterford are 30 feet high, which is about as high as prison walls go. "To climb over with a rope you would have to have a terrific power-to-weight ratio," says Graterford public information officer Alan LeFebvre. Beetle has a very high power-to-weight ratio. After less than two years of serious lifting, he has bench-pressed 425 pounds, deadlifted 750 and squatted 825—one ton, total. But even if his muscles could get him to the top of a 30-foot rope, they couldn't stop bullets. A sign on the wall of the Pit proclaims WHEN MIGHT MAKES RIGHT, which is the principle upon which all prisons are built, an axiom even dogs understand.
Beetle sits on a bench and proudly holds out the certificate that documents his 825-pound squat, the state powerlifting record he set on Dec. 5, 1987 here in the Pit. He's a champion lifter who is unable to attend outside meets. That, of course, is one of the problems of being a convicted killer. But Beetle, at 32, isn't brash or mouthy like some of the younger lifters around him. He looks at the floor when he says softly, "I thought a lot about it being a pity—being in here. I could've learned it all out there, but I bypassed that."
Beetle is black, as is every other lifter in the room. And though the American penal system has a disproportionate number of inmates who are from minorities, Beetle can't blame race for his troubles. He played football at Cheyney (Pa.) State for two seasons but "got messed up with drinking, mostly," he says, and let the bad guys he hung around with back in Philly "dictate what I did."
As he climbs under the bar at the squat rack, he looks as dark and dense as a cast-iron June bug. BEETLE is tattooed on his huge left biceps; it's impossible to imagine a better nickname for the man. He does 10 quick squats with 135 pounds, then steps back and mumbles instructions to the inmates around him. They're working on their own projects, but they defer to him. "He's definitely a new kind of hero," Graterford assistant weight coach Bob Felton wrote in a note he appended to Beetle's aforementioned letter. Other inmates have begun to peer through the grimy window in the hallway overlooking the Pit. Beetle has had some fame. He has been written up in local newspapers for his feats. And now Felton is narrating the scene for a prison video crew taping Beetle's workout for broadcast on the in-house cable TV channel.
Like most prison recreation officials, Felton believes deeply in the value of sports for inmates. "A lot of prisoners start out thinking, 'It's you against the weight.' " he says. "But it's not. It's you against you. Like life. That's something men must learn."
Darryl (Smash) Ford, who's serving a life sentence for first-degree murder, and Preston (the General) Ryan put more weight on the bar for the Beetle. Ryan, who's missing a front tooth and is serving 12½ to 30 years for murder and aggravated assault, is a huge man who competes in the 275-pound class. He says that he's addicted to powerlifting: "I have no choice. I can't stop. Like those runners you hear about."
Beetle squats quickly five times with 315 pounds, then does four reps with 500. Five hundred pounds is the point at which a standard Olympic bar, such as the one in use here, starts to bow.