Prison Powerlifting: It's therapy for those behind bars
LAS CRUCES – Walk into the gym and the door swings shut behind you. It could be any gym, anywhere. Except for that door.
That door doesn't open from the inside. You don't walk back out, past the checkpoints, past the barbed wire without an escort. If you are one of the 600 inmates at Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility, you don't walk out at all.
This is home, 13 miles west of Las Cruces. This is prison. It's Saturday, May 18 1991, and that home is host to the New Mexico State Powerlifting Championships. There are 65 competitors, six of them inmates. They've turned to the sport as a therapy – a mental medicine that injects a little pride, a sense of accomplishment, a sense of being somebody. David M. is one of those prisoners.
Taming the rage
McCullough is a big man. He says he grew up in a rage. Now, the rage seems gone and McCullough appears calm, at ease with himself. Yet during the competition McCullough shows a flamboyant side –charging up to the weights, lifting with enthusiasm. This is joy at work. Not rage.
„David's been powerlifting three or four years,“ recreation director Art Zamora says. „He did have a serious chip on his shoulder. His attitude around the compound now is totally different. I don't know if it's the lifting, but he's changed.“
McCullough, all 6 feet, 245pounds of him, loves lifting weights. He's been doing it for the past three years at the Southern New Mexico prison. He lifts five days a week and he enjoys competing. But he says the weights have nothing to do with his attitude.
„I'm a born again Christian,“ McCullough, a 34-year-old native of California says. „I tried a lot of things, but nohting could stop my anger. I even tried something called anger management when I first got here. But only Jesus Christ...that's the only thing that changed me.“
McCullough certainly needed a change.
A lifetime of trouble
„I was passing thorugh Albuquerque and ran into a little trouble,“ he says. „Murder... armed robbery.“
McCullough has been in prison for five years and has four more years to go. But his „trouble“ in Albuquerque was just the culmination of a lot of trouble, a life of trouble.
„I was a vicitim of child abuse,“ he says matter-of-factly, flashing one of his frequent friendly grins.
„I'd come home every day and my dad would whip me. I couldn't understand why my teachers would get mad when I'd go to school and beat somebody up.“
„I just grew up in a rage. I just thought beating people up was the natural way. Let's just say that drugs and violence ruined my youth. Now..“
McCullough shrugs, talking about his time now and future days. „I enjoy lifting weights; setting goals. It's a positive way to spend the time here. It helps keep the time here. It helps keep the time progressive. I'll continue to lift. All the rest of my life.“
McCullough, a plumber by trade, has been taking correspondence courses from Southeastern Bible College in Birmingham, Ala. He says he thinks about becoming a minister, about joining some friends in Arkansas.
McCullough, obsiously enjoying this particular time, this competition, finishes fourth in the 275-pound open class.
A heavy wait
McCullough's fellow lifter, Albert Ramirez, took a different route to the prison weight room.
A small man, Ramirez had never been in trouble before being arrested just over three years ago.
"I'm 24,“ he says. „I've been down since I was 21. About all I do right now is go to school and lift weights.“
There are worse existences. But this is hardly the ideal lifestyle for a 24-year-old.
„This is my first competition,“ the 5-foot-6, 148-pounder says. „I've lifted for some time now, but I only lifted to stay fit. I just started training for power lifting about six months ago. This is fun. I like it.“
Someone comes by with a paper for Ramirez to sign. It had to be dated. Ramirez has to ask the date. The days all run together in this home.
„I'd never been in trouble before,“ he says, smiling slightly, shrugging just a little. „I was a plumber, making a lot of money. I started drinking. Then I wanted a little more, so I tried cocaine. I moved here to New Mexico for three months and got arrested for armed robbery.“
Ramirez has been here the last three years, growing up, learning to cope with prison life. He smiles slightly when he says he only has 1 ½ left.
„A 10-year sentence,“ he says quietly. „Armed robbery. I'm not too proud of it. I've gotta make the most of it. Get rehabilitated, as they say.“
Zamora says, „Albert's been working out steadily for the past year. He's really got good numbers for his body weight. He's not a troublemaker here. He consumes his time in a positive manner and I've noticed a big change in Albert and his attitude since he started lifting.“
Ramirez talks of goals, of qualifying for the national powerlifting meet. „I guess maybe penitentiary saved me. Maybe this is the step I needed.“
Saturday 18, May 1991. It was a big step. Ramirez was the New Mexico champion at 148 pounds.
One day at a time
The inmates stand quietly, watching the meet. Occasionally, they cheer for one of their own. The rest of the time, they just casually check out this novelty. McCullough, Ramirez and the other inmates here wait, work, hope toward a happier future. One day at a time, a week here, a month there, then a year is gone.
They would like a chance to compete outside the prison once in a while. One day, they will have that chance. And they won't have to return home, to the gym that locks from the inside.
El Paso Times 1991, May 26