This is the ninth in a series of guest posts written by ex-offenders who have turned their lives around and now work, in one way or another, in the criminal justice sector.
You may think you know all about LJ Flanders and his prison fitness regime, Cell Workout. However, LJ was released from prison five years ago and the book Cell Workout was published in 2015.
Since then, he’s been taking on a new challenge hoping to help and inspire other prisoners to turn their lives around. Read on to find out more.
A million noes
I’ve always been a driven person. Although prison was a massive knock, once I found my feet I wanted to use my time as productively as possible. I spent months in Pentonville developing the exercises for Cell Workout and the best part of three years designing the book and publishing it myself before Hodder and Stoughton took it on.
I plugged away for five years trying to be allowed back into prison, so that I could try to give something back and inspire other prisoners to change their lives.
I must have been knocked back what felt like a million times, until Ian Bickers, who was Governor at HMP Wandsworth at the time, decided to take a chance on me and let me come back in to deliver my fitness and achievement courses.
I set up a social enterprise – Cell Workout Enterprise C.I.C – and, with the help of the Prisoners’ Education Trust, succeeded in winning funding from the Ministry of Justice to deliver my Cell Workout Workshop programme in HMP Wandsworth.
The two-week workshops consist of a Cell Workout fitness session in the morning, to get the guys up and out of bed, with a hit of cardio to get the endorphins going and really kick-start their day. Given the inactivity of some of the men without jobs on the wing, who spend extended time behind the door, it’s no wonder laziness can creep in and the weight pile on.
The workouts shouldn’t be viewed as an alternative to the gym, they are to reinforce just how important fitness is in prison, physically and mentally.
Although tired after the first few sessions, the participants soon adapt, as each session is tailored to their individual ability, with alternative exercises, from beginner to advanced.
I can see the attraction and how popular the morning fitness sessions are, but for me and the guys, it’s the afternoon sessions that really gets them thinking about how to spend their time in prison wisely. Focusing on group discussions, I’ve moved away from the typical ‘academic’ type of learning, which never really worked for me and many on the course, in terms of past experience with education and learning.
We discuss topics such as; growth vs fixed mindset, goal setting, why resilience is important, how to stay motivated, nutrition plans to follow whilst in prison, and wherever the discussions take us. I can see them really engaging when we discuss entrepreneurship and business plan writing.
I lay it out simply – that from within their cell, they can get the education, knowledge and qualification in a subject they are passionate about to prepare themselves for life outside. And for those who have a business idea, they have the opportunity to write the guidelines and start planning.
With hard work and effort they can achieve their goals and walk out of prison with better job opportunities and a better future.
So far so good
I’ve just come to the end of a six-month delivery period in HMP Wandsworth working with 150 men in total. I’m delighted (and quite proud) to say that the workshops have been over-subscribed (eg 200 of 285 men on A wing applied). The physical results on their before and after body MOTs show that an intensive two-work course works – with most people recording increased muscle mass, reduced fat and improved lung capacity.
But I’m much more gratified by the other results; the optimism the men show about being able to take control of keeping fit and healthy, even if they are not able to get to the gym as regularly as they would like. On course six, 8 of 15 men registered their interest in studying via distance learning, who (in their own words) wouldn’t have bothered or didn’t know it was available before. That’s hugely positive.
People in prison are always looking for something relevant, some way of making their time more purposeful and this pilot scheme ticks all the boxes. After all, I created this course with what I would have wanted for myself and what I would have found helpful.
The Workshop has been very well received by officers and inmates alike and hopefully I can bridge the gap between the two. For the first few weeks it felt surreal to carry keys, but then I quickly settled into my new role. But I always feel grateful when leaving the prison gates at the end of the day and I hope the people I work with will do the same and have the tools and set up not to return.
I will be spending the summer doing a thorough evaluation of the Workshop and work out how to expand my programme. I can see a need for this in prisons around the country, men’s, women’s and YOIs, with its unique take on mentoring, working alongside prison staff
I will be working closely with The Prince’s Trust who has supported the book since its early stages when I completed their Enterprise course after leaving prison.
Positivity and optimism is hard to come by in prison, but as one participant recently said to me “there’s hope for all of us, keep up the good work….”
To be an example of what can be achieved in prison and beyond is a dream job for me, encouraging and showing people inside that they can make a success of their lives.
The Cell Workout website is currently being revamped. The full report and evaluation will be available in September.
You can find out all about LJ Flanders and his work on his website.
You can follow him on Twitter @cellworkout
You can contact him on firstname.lastname@example.org
And, of course, you can buy the Cell Workout book (rated 5 stars on Amazon) here.