How to develop an inmate physical fitness program

A simple exercise program can meet the needs of inmates to be physically fit without placing additional burdens on correctional personnel


By Robert Schermer, RN, C1 Contributor

If you have been in corrections for any length of time, you will have seen multiple changes in inmate physical fitness routines.

Over the years agencies tried various forms of physical fitness equipment. Many of you may remember the days of recreation yards lined with dumbbells, barbells and other weight-lifting equipment, all well suited for use as a weapon.

Inmate physical fitness programs can be cost-effective and safe for both inmates and correctional personnel. (Photo/Robert Schermer)
Inmate physical fitness programs can be cost-effective and safe for both inmates and correctional personnel. (Photo/Robert Schermer)

I recall thinking, “Why do inmates have access to weapons that could be used against staff or each other?”

As weight-lifting equipment has been removed from facilities, inmates are trying more creative ways of working out. Incarcerated individuals are geniuses when it comes to developing physical fitness routines and manufacturing exercise equipment.

Inmates use water bags or each other as weights, broomsticks as dumbbells and bunkbed bars for chin-ups. This all causes damage to property, eats up staff time removing contraband items, and increases maintenance costs for facilities from misuse of issued items or equipment.

Activities like wall ball cause many injuries to inmates. As a nurse, I have seen several inmates turn in medical requests and been called to units for skinned feet and broken hands as a result of this activity. Associated costs include lost staff time to take inmates to medical centers, x-rays of fractures and increased sick calls.

In addition, when a correctional officer shows up at a hospital with a handcuffed individual who has fractures or head injuries, the community may think the injury was a result of a staff interaction rather than recreation. They did not see the person get hurt when a metal part from the bunk broke loose and they fell and hit their head. They did not see them run full speed to hit a ball, trip and punch the wall fracturing a hand.

Initial steps

How do we meet the needs and desire of inmates to be physically fit while avoiding exorbitant costs, additional burdens on staff and exercise-related injuries?

Nearly every community has some sort of physical fitness facility. Reaching out to these local instructors may yield vetted individuals willing to come into the facility at least two hours a week to teach classes to the population.

Classes should be taught by individuals of the same gender as the inmates with a strict policy in relation to attire allowed in the facility.

For an exercise program to work it has to be an enjoyable experience. The program should incorporate an interval of movement and music, along with exercises using items like resistance bands and exercise balls. Use of resistance bands, yoga mats and small exercise balls are an effective way of providing toning and cardiovascular exercises.

Pilot exercise program in action

Where I work, contracted physical fitness instructors visit the facility twice a week. Female units participate two times a week in the mornings, the males in the evenings.

Each class has a limit of 25 students and classes may be split into two with one group attending class on Tuesday, the other on Thursday. Times were established so as not to interfere with jail operations.

Classes are completed in the recreation area; in event of inclement weather it may be done within the housing unit.

Our program has several goals:

  • Limit injuries related to physical exercise;
  • Eliminate the use of inappropriate equipment for exercise;
  • Establish a program with sufficient cardiovascular and resistance to improve health and conditioning;
  • Provide a positive outlet for stress relief.

We started the program in our minimum custody housing unit, and then extended it to the medium custody female inmates when it was apparent that offering inmates the opportunity to participate in the program drove behaviors to improve. The two groups established that they could be in the same room together for these exercise classes. Nobody wanted to be left out.

One month into the pilot of our fitness program for incarcerated females, medical requests dropped by 52 percent.

The response from inmates at my facility has been very positive. As part of the exercise program, each individual is asked to complete a short questionnaire about their goals in relation to the program. Having read these questionnaires, the goals are consistent with the defined intent of the program.

If even one individual uses exercise as a positive outlet for stress relief, and turns away from drug or alcohol abuse, I consider the program is a success. There is an added benefit as well. The desire to retain the program within the units drives the inmate population to limit negative behaviors.

Challenge your staff to develop innovative programs that will improve outcomes and reflect the professionalism of your staff and agency.


About the Author

Robert Schermer, RN, is a nursing supervisor at the Graham County Adult Detention in Safford, Arizona.

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Copyright © 2019 CorrectionsOne.com. All rights reserved.