Weight Training At Folsom Prison in 1940

Weightlifting and bodybuilding has been an important part of the athletic program at Folsom Prison in California since the early 1940’s. At that time the transfer of certain weightminded prisoners from the larger California institution of San Quentin, gave considerable impetus to the few enthusiasts who were training at isolated sports where some minor items of equipment had been collected.

About 1945 Associate Warden William Ryan gave permission for prisoners to engage in weight training acticities in the main yard area. Since Folsom was, and is, a maximum security institution, this innovation was looked upon by the conservative minded guards as very daring and predictions were made that the weights would be used as weapons in fights riots, and escape attempts. However, in the following sixteen years only one minor incident occured in which a mentally disturbed inmate (not a participating weightlifter) threw a dumbell at another prisoner. It is the concensus among supervisory officials that the area where this this activity takes place requires less supervision and causes less trouble than any prison locale of comparable size.

For the first year that the program was under way in the Folsom Prison Yard area, the equipment conssted of one 12″x16″x36″ wooden bench, an abdominal exercise board, one pair of lead 28 pound dumbells, a six-foot steel bar, and a collection of gears, pulleys and wheels totalling about 420 pounds. In the autumn of 1946 several hundred pounds of additional cast-off industrial items that could be used for weight resistance were collected; another bar and bench were added and a set of wooden supports was constructed by the prisoners so that heavy squats could be practiced.
Since that time there has been continuous accretion of lifting and bodybuilding equipment until today Folsom has one of the most ambitious and industrious weight programs in the penal institutions of the United States.

Folsom Prison Power Lifting outdoor gymCurrently 14 barbell sets, including 2 York Olympic models, 36 pairs of solid dumbells ranging from 15 to 125 pounds size, 12 exercise benches, 2 squat racks, abdominal boards and machines, pulley exercisers, parallel dip bars, horizontal bars, lifting platform, lockers and dumbell racks are in constant use between the hours of 8:00 to 11:50 a.m. and 12:30 to 3:10 p.m. Approximately 300 prisoners are steady patrons of this open-air gym which comprises an area about 30 by 50 feet. Another 100 or more inmates participate on an irregular and casual basis, with many more men interested but inhibited by lack of space or opportunity.

Because of high median age of the participants (about 38-40), the major part of the weight training is bodybuilding for health and physical fitness, although some exponents of Olympic style lifting are always to be found. A certain amount of exercise therapy in the form of reduction of physical handicaps, assistance to overweight and underweight individuals, etc., is undertaken by the two inmates assigned as caretakers of the equipment.

An example of this type of work was the case of inmate Chavez who had an arm partially paralyzed and was initially able to lift only 1 pounds with the handicapped member, but after 6 months of assiduous training was capable of a 170 pound exertion with the same member. Another individual who was greatly benefitted was prisoner Golub who, at the time of commitnebt weighed 285 pounds although only 5’9″ in height, and whose cardio vascular system was so weak and overburdened that he was unable to climb a short flight of stairs without rest stops. In eight months of steady workouts he reduced his bodyweight to 210 pounds and was capable of performing a day’s work for the first time in many years.
Neither of these men has returned to the prison since their release and the effort expended in their physical rehabilitation can certainly be regarded as thoroughly justified. It is certainly hoped that more emphasis can be placed upon therapy of this type which upgrades the the employability of correctional inmates.

In the course of the past 15 years many lifters and bodybuilders within the prison accomplished feats of considerable magnitude for which “outside” recognition with athletes from the free world was ever scheduled.
One of Folsom’s most notable strength athletes was a lifter named Jones, but known to most prisoners as “TNT.” In the middle 1940’s his accomplishments included a 300 pound two hands snatch and 390 pound clean and jerk. He was also capable of over 400 pounds bench press and in the course of his workouts often performed 15 continuous repetions with 400 pounds the in the squat. His bodyweight was usually 225 pounds at a height of 6’1″.

Another lifter, perhaps more widely known in the free world, was Jerome Von Braun Selz who, during the early 1940’s was totaling in excess of 900 pounds as a heavyweight member of the San Quention prison team and continued his lifting activities after transfer to Folsom Prison in 1946. Working out frequently during this same period was Caryl Chessman who, at the time of his release on parole in 1947, was approaching the 400 pound mark in he bench press.

During the 1950-51 period one of Folsom’s long-term inmates, W. E. Streeter, successfully achieved a squat with 530 pounds and performed a dead-weight lift of 650 pounds; both of these lifts being in excess of the California State records at that time. Streeter’s bodyweight was 250 pounds at a height of 5’10”. He was also capable of 260 press, 240 snatch and 310 clean and jerk, although not a steady practitioner of the 3 lifts.

In recent years Folsom “strong boy” has been Mervin “Moose” Jerasek, whose 700 pound deadweight lift, 500 pound squat, 280 press, 245 snatch and 315 clean and jerk places him among the nation’s strongest men. It is expected that with further training he will shatter Bob Peopl’s long-held amateur deadweight record of 725 pounds.

Folsom, in future years, expects to see lifting and weight training surge to new heights and hopes for ab expansion of progressive resistance exercise in the fields or corrective and remedial therapy, pre-release exercise and conditioning courses, and similiar areas of rehabilitation endeavor. The high carry-over value of weight training as an acitivity in the post-release period, its importance in the reduction of intra-prison tensions, and its usefulness in improving the health and physical condtion of the men who are confined for periods of years makes this one of the most valuable of prison sports programs.

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