CSC's Fit Life program helps inmates in SIU
A healthy lifestyle is essential for everyone. Not surprisingly, a CSC fitness program that promotes a healthy lifestyle is helping incarcerated individuals improve not only their physical health, but their mental and social well-being.
Fit Life is a physical fitness program developed by Kwame Osei, a CSC educator with a physical education and coaching background. The program is seeing healthy outcomes with inmates at the Structured Intervention Unit (SIU) at Millhaven Institution, a maximum-security penitentiary near Kingston, Ontario. The SIUs, which exist at institutions across the country, are alternative units where CSC works with those who cannot be managed in the mainstream population.
The physical fitness program that Kwame developed borrowed aspects of the Health for Life high school program and was tailored with his own unique techniques to promote physical literacy to help those in the SIU see the importance of healthy living.
“Staff from various departments in the SIU work very hard each and every day to get inmates outside of their cell. The work that Kwame does as a teacher in the SIU with the inmates through his physical education program is a prime example of finding innovative ideas that the inmate is interested in to entice them to come out of their cell,” said Henry Saulnier, Warden at Millhaven Institution.
Kwame says the idea behind the program was more than getting individuals out of their cells.
“The reason why I’m here is to try to just build these guys up educationally, build a foundation for them to believe in themselves, to have some confidence,” he said. “It’s up to us to approach them with our whole self and try to build them up and rehabilitate them, so that they’re ready for the real world.”
The Fit Life program is about building basic life skills, teaching inmates to be physically fit and creating healthy habits. That includes fitness training, exercise classes, working out, as well as encouraging education and learning—the school components. These are life skills that incarcerated individuals can use in their life outside of prison, ultimately contributing to their rehabilitation and safe reintegration.
“Kwame has embodied a philosophy that is student-centred and very intentional in meeting the learners where they are at and collaborating with them to make positive change to move forward,” said Kevin MacInnis, chief of education at Millhaven Institution.
Offenders in the SIU have often been frustrated in the past with conventional education approaches.
“We have discovered that when given the opportunity to learn in unconventional education streams, our students have flourished,” said Kevin. “We have created safe spaces for our students to grow and learn. Program participants are more productively engaged in their overall correctional plan, and they have become motivated to succeed in life. Participants transition from this program with increased development of their physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional health.”
Fit Life moves beyond the traditional use of weightlifting in the prison environment. While weightlifting is generally seen by inmates and staff as a healthy outlet for physical activity, it can also feed into a toxic prison culture of physical strength, power and control. Inmates also learn the importance of flexibility and mobility through the practice of yoga, which helps strengthen the mind and provides another tool for emotional regulation.
In order for the offenders to be able to participate in the physical fitness course, they need to first demonstrate that they are engaged in their schoolwork. They do this by showing that they have completed homework, or responding to questions about the schoolwork.
Since its launch in 2020, 91 students have gone through the Fit Life program. Impressively, 11 have now graduated, earning their Ontario high school diploma.
Daily physical activity also aids in goal setting, which gives inmates something to look forward to and contributes to their mental well-being, improving their overall self-confidence and mood. Exercise can relieve stress, episodes related to post-traumatic stress disorder, depression or anxiety, and it also improves sleep, which is closely connected to mental and emotional health. Physical activity also enhances thinking, learning, and judgment skills.
“I get to do work on my physical health, and I get to do my education,” said Don, an SIU inmate in the Fit Life program. “Not only that, I built a relationship with him [Kwame] where I’m very comfortable to talk about anything that’s on my mind, right? Unfortunately, you could be going through things in your personal life with your family or anything. To me, I consider him like a brother, like an older brother, or a dad I can talk to.”
Fit Life contributes to humanizing the prison environment by allowing individuals to build healthy relationships.
“At the end of the day, in places like this, it’s very hard to put your trust in people, especially when you are in jail,” said Don. “So, just to build that trust and that comfortability is one thing, you know.”
Incarcerated individuals are not the only ones benefitting through Fit Life. Physical activity allows inmates to release unwanted stress, anger and aggression, which could otherwise be vented in a negative way towards other inmates or staff.
Kevin noted that Kwame not only built positive relationships with inmates, but also with staff, by explaining to them what he does, what he wants to accomplish, and how he can accomplish it. This highlights how the program is a critical support to staff involved in keeping the prison system running safely and smoothly.
“As the Warden, I find it very important to listen to people like Kwame and to encourage them to share their ideas because they're working with the inmates every day,” said Henry. “And when they go to a cell and an inmate doesn't want to come out and doesn't want to participate, this needs to be their motivation to come up with innovative ideas of what can they do differently that an inmate will want to come out and participate within the program. Kwame did exactly that and has some great success.”
The Fit Life program engages the students while teaching them physical literacy and primes them for deeper learning in more conventional academics, and getting their education helps individuals with employability post-incarceration. It is an ideal template for an enhanced programming within the SIUs. CSC is looking at expanding the program to other institutions across the country.
Thank you Kwame, Kevin, and all those involved in the SIU for the difference you are making in the lives of inmates in your care.