Stateville won the national postal weight-lifting meet with the other
correctional institutions," Vail had said earlier, "but in 1973 we
didn't even compete. Everybody was locked in their cells for the summer."
The team won again in 1974, but emotional letdowns caused by lockups, the
absence of a high-protein diet for muscle building, and inadequate workout time
had stunted the pride in the athletes.
"We've got the
talent," Vail had noted, "but we have no confidence. Our athletes get
down on each other early, they get scared and embarrassed over little
things—errors, mental mistakes—because they are insecure. What can you do? Once
our baseball players had to report to their cells in mid-inning of a game with
the University of Illinois because of a disturbance in one of the cell house
On the narrow bench
the Stateville captain lowers the bar and holds it motionless across his
swollen chest. The muscles engage like heavy machinery, with nearly audible
sounds of veins bulging up through the skin and sweat squeezing into pearls
across the pectoral muscles and forehead. One can see the man drift into
himself, see incongruous thoughts dancing over each other in his mind—his life,
the bar, the cold drafty basement; out there on the street, the past, the
future—and then condensing until the bar assimilates the thoughts and it is
only the bar pushing like a stone on the captain's hands.
scream for him to snap it, to push, push, push. He strains until his face is
twisted and his chin has disappeared into his neck. But there is no push left,
and he knows it. He shakes his head, and the spotters rush in to lift the bar
back to the rack. He receives a din of applause as he lies drained, his arms at
his sides on the padded bench. Gradually the lights and concrete walls and
memories flood back and the bar disappears. The weight wins this round.
As the meet
progresses and the men circulate, it is easy to forget that the Stateville
lifters are not one's peers, that they are fulfilling debts to society for
serious crimes. There are murderers here. There is a cop killer. There is a man
who bludgeoned his wife to death and threw her off a balcony. There are heroin
pushers, robbers, one man serving time for "double beef"—killing two
With his wind back
the captain shows surprising enthusiasm for someone "giving up the best
years of my life" behind bars. "Sure, the team hasn't progressed as it
should but, well, there have been problems. Just watch us move now. I love this
sport, it burns up my tensions like a furnace. When I'm teed off I can come
down and move some metal around and I feel better. Good. Cleaned out."
A 181-pounder dusts
chalk from his hands and looks serious. "To me it's a job," he says.
"There isn't much pleasure involved. On the outside I'm a mechanic, but in
here I lift. For four years now I've been lifting and I feel it's my job—my
duty—to lift. I need it because I'm gonna do my own time, work, and forget
everything I see." Several men nod in agreement. It is a point most of the
prisoners make: power lifting—in fact, every sport in the prison—is an
instrument to be used to keep one's sanity, a set of blinders, a punching bag
for the times when there's nothing else but your hands.
The prisoners seek
lifting tips. Some of them continue with the lighter weights, trying to get the
benefit of a workout during the slack parts of the meet. Many of them have
tattoos on their arms, and as they work, Maria and Mom and hearts with piercing
arrows swell and stretch, like lettering on balloons.
The meet ends with
superheavyweight Floyd (Jumbo) Cummings attempting to dead-lift 660 pounds.
Jumbo has arms like dented stove pipes and thighs that spill over his knees, so
that one knows he could never be fitted properly in street clothes. Jumbo is
24, stands 6'3", weighs 250 pounds and has a 32-inch waist. At Stateville
he has high-jumped 6'2", longjumped more than 21 feet, and been banned from
intramural football because of his strength. When he was 16, Jumbo left reform
school in Mississippi and caught a bus to Chicago. Soon after, he was convicted
of murder. If there is a symbol of awe and respect on the Stateville team, a
person who carries the banner for whatever fantasies the prisoners allow
themselves, it is Jumbo.
In the spring of
1974 Jumbo began training as a boxer, with the '76 Olympics his first goal.
Because he is serving 50 to 75 years it is speculative, of course, whether he
would be allowed out to compete, although Jesse Vail says it probably could be
arranged. (Jumbo will be allowed to take part in the Illinois AAU championships
next week in Waukegan.) For Jumbo, the motivation is simple. "I don't want
to fight to be free," he says. "I want to be heavyweight champion of
the world." The part-time boxing coach has warned Jumbo that to go into
serious training means to stop lifting weights. At this Jumbo shakes his head
solemnly. "It will be hard to stop. The iron's part of me now."