For many Americans, the idea of what life is like in prison is informed by movies or television shows that typically perpetuate stereotypes. So, we sent two BuzzFeed employees, Eli and Rocco, to the California City Correctional Facility to work out with the inmates for a week and get to know the prisoners a bit more personally.
Neither Rocco nor Eli had been incarcerated before, though Rocco had been in trouble with the law when he was younger. Both men were anxious about the workout and trying to integrate themselves into the prison.
The class was led by Coss Marte, a former inmate who created a workout plan called "ConBody" while in solitary confinement. Coss is truly a beacon of light for people still in the system; he proves that former inmates can overcome so many obstacles and still be a beneficial part of society.
Coss was incarcerated after he launched a multimillion-dollar drug business. After leaving prison, he channeled his entrepreneurship into a fitness business.
Eli really struggled to complete the first workout, but he was overwhelmed with encouragement and support from the other men – something he had never experienced at any gym.
And for Coss, one of the most rewarding parts of leading a group workout was how it allowed the men to break any barriers they had outside and act as a unit during that hour and a half.
After spending some time in the prison, it became clear many of the men were there due to circumstance. One of the inmates, Carl, opened up about how he was arrested after using illegal means to try and support his struggling family.
Frank, another inmate, was being released in four months after serving time for cocaine possession. Both Frank and Carl dedicated a lot of their time in prison to studying and preparing themselves to join the workforce after their release.
Midway through the week, Eli and Rocco started to feel exhausted. However, they weren't just physically drained, but also emotionally. They realized that so many of the people they were meeting were similar to them, and these peoples' lives would be altered forever because of their time in prison.
Rocco and Eli decided to hang out with some of the men outside of the workout class and were invited back to have dinner at the prison. Admittedly, they both were nervous; they weren't sure where they would sit or who they would talk to.
Luckily, Carl and Frank were quick to sit down and eat with Rocco and Eli. During their dinner, they talked about everything from art and food, to prison stereotypes and how the system affects the people in it.
The next morning, Frank told our producers he could no longer participate in the video. While Frank couldn't disclose why, Carl informed us that when you enter prison, you are immediately classified by your race. So, Frank's participation was causing some political riffs among his own group, which could potentially put him in harm's way.
And the week wasn't getting any easier. Every single person Rocco and Eli met shed light on how human and real the people in our prison systems are. Rocco was saddened to hear Ping's story, a young man who made one mistake that cost him 13 years of his life.
Ping had a clean record before being arrested; he went to private school, lived in a good neighborhood, and stayed out of trouble. However, Ping was incarcerated for “conspiracy to commit a crime” and just the mention of the gun added time to his sentence. For Eli and Rocco, this was a huge wake-up call that our judicial system isn't black and white when it comes to right and wrong.
By the time the week was over, Eli and Rocco cared less about how their bodies could change from a workout, and more about how they could grow and learn from the men they were surrounded by.
And the men in the prison were affected, too. They were happy that outsiders could come in and look at them not as a number or a statistic – but as people.
Overall, it was truly a life changing experience and taught the men that not all prisoners are the monsters they are painted as on television; many are just like us but were dealt different cards.