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“One minute left!” I yell out to the 25 guys in the gym. I’m pushing them and myself to keep up a crushing pace. We do burpees until we feel that elusive burn in our chest and shoulders.

It’s a 95-degree Tuesday in July in this barren box that we call a gym. There’s no air conditioning, no fan blowing and no lights. The windows are so near the ceiling that daylight barely finds us. Razor wire tops the perimeter fence, patrolled by armed guards.

We are working out in a federal prison in Allenwood, Pennsylvania, and we do this workout because we must.

Prisons are habitats for bad health. Heart attacks, hypertension, diabetes and stroke populate prison yards. Prison health care services are tragically inadequate. An incarcerated person’s only physical defense against the prison’s oppressive operations is exercise.

Physical fitness is also critical for securing peace of mind on the inside. There is no shortage of studies that conclude that our mental health is directly linked to physical health, as exercise increases endorphin levels, decreases stress and improves thinking and other cognitive functions. The cadence and count of ones and twos, ups and downs become our melodic therapy. Insanity to P-90X, pilates to beach bodies are all mixed into an exercise bowl and devoured by inmates trying to cope.

As a fitness instructor I lead a jump rope-infused high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout four days a week. The workouts are extreme and intense, like the environment. This intensity also matches the mental strain that we endure daily: the rejected phone calls, denied visits, humiliating random pat downs and other micro-aggressions. The total body aerobic assault momentarily takes us away from our miseries. Our grunts and yells as we revel in our reps can only be understood by our other locked away peers.

Brothers of all stripes, colors and creeds bond over bench presses. Health and fitness literature is passed around from cell to cell. Nutrition labels, proteins and portions are analyzed and disputed by a spectrum of guys whether they have GED diplomas or Ph.D.s.

Topics of conversation range from amino acids to Freud, from water intake to war, from tendinitis to Tesla. It would make a civilian believe they were in the company of professors instead of prisoners.

Our mental fitness also helps us rehabilitate. All of us have cut a path in the wrong direction across society. We have victimized and in some cases severely altered people’s lives for the worse. Between hours of allowed recreation time, we do mental heavy lifting. We read, study for spiritual awakening and make business plans. These mental deadlifts are an integral part of our prison fitness plan.

Back in the gym I yell out the circuit, “Two-minute jump, 10 two-pump burpees, five jump squats, five times. Begin!”

The whipping sound of 26 jump ropes slapping the floor blends in with the Meek Mill anthem, “Otherside of America,” a song fitting for the moment. The gym hums with heavy breathing and splashing sweat. Pushing ourselves, we hope to prove that we are now in good shape, changed men, better than we once were. We hope to show that we are indeed fit to be free.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Aaron M. Kinzer is a writer, poet and spoken word performance artist. His work has been published in the Columbia Journal and In the Belly, the upcoming re-sentencing journal by Tufts University. He has written for DreamCorps Justice for their 2022 National Day of Empathy. Kinzer is incarcerated in Pennsylvania.