LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Women who enter prison struggle with multiple health problems, and one of them is weight gain. With few exercise options, it's easy to put on the pounds, and related illnesses are straining prison health care systems. Taunya English from The Pulse at member station WHYY visited one Philadelphia facility that's offering an alternative.
TAUNYA ENGLISH, BYLINE: To get to the gym at Riverside Correctional Facility, you pass through a medical detector, two heavy doors and then head down the hall. Step onto the basketball court and in the corner, you see 16 stationary bikes in a half circle.
ERICA TIBBETTS: We're going to do a couple of five-second sprints, OK?
ENGLISH: One or two inmates are struggling, but on bike No. 2, Lakiesha Montgomery is pedaling fast and singing loud. Her hair is braided into cornrows, and she has a sprinkle of freckles across her nose. She also has high cholesterol.
LAKIESHA MONTGOMERY: I didn't think that I would be able to keep up 'cause I'm not the skinniest thing in the bunch (laughter) but...
ENGLISH: But she is keeping up. Montgomery spends time in the prison yard almost every day, but that says she never gets any exercise there.
MONTGOMERY: Well, the outside is not a real outside. It's like a little mini-garage - four walls, you know? They have a basketball court there, but I don't play basketball. It's a lot of people that come out, so you don't have room to really jog or walk around. It's just like you sit out just to get some air.
ENGLISH: Montgomery was charged with assault earlier this year and has been in county jail for about six months. First time, last time, she says. And in the meantime, spin class is something to do.
MONTGOMERY: Keep away frustration, you know, being locked up. It helps you get through.
ENGLISH: In 2011, biking advocates from the nonprofit group Gearing Up persuaded prison officials to let them bring in bikes to teach indoor cycling. Founder Kristin Gavin says before that, she had mentored ex-offenders out in the community.
KRISTIN GAVIN: Over and over, I had conversations with women who were saying, you know, while I was incarcerated, I put on 60 pounds, I put on 70 pounds. I'm like, how long were you in prison for? Six months.
ENGLISH: Gearing Up is working with researchers at Temple University to track the women's weight and body image. Gavin says at first, women come to class because they want to stop gaining weight. Then they find other reasons to keep coming back.
GAVIN: I could speak to myself, if I weren't given the opportunity to be physically active, I'd probably be - go a little crazy (laughter). I probably wouldn't be able to manage my emotions, my anger. I think anger management is a huge issue for a lot of women who are in the prison. They've been victims of trauma and abuse.
ENGLISH: And, of course, some of them have hurt other people. Exercise is a way to release all sorts of emotions.
TIBBETTS: Jog it out. Stay up. Stay up. Stay up. All right, Kiesha. All right, Amanda.
ENGLISH: Climb on a bike and there's a sense of freedom, even if you're not going anywhere. At the beginning of each class, the women set their intention for the ride.
SONYA: I'm Sonya (ph), and I'm leaving behind prison.
SHERINA: I'm Sherina (ph). I'm leaving back frustration.
JENNIFER: I'm Jennifer. I'm leaving back my past.
ALETHIA: I'm Alethia, and I'm leaving behind depression.
ENGLISH: On average, women at Riverside gain about 26 pounds in a year. Bruce Herdman is the prison's chief of medical operations. He says weight gain is a problem, but his team is managing lots of health problems.
BRUCE HERDMAN: The chlamydia rate - 6.6 percent on admission. We'll treat a thousand people this year for HIV. The hepatitis C rate here - and largely 'cause of intravenous drug use - is 13 percent. So then you have hypertension, diabetes, all of the regular things.
ENGLISH: The prison pays Gearing Up to hold spin class three times a week, and there's an occasional yoga class. But food has been the biggest change. Last year, Riverside cut calories, from nearly 2,900 a day to 2,500. That helped, but inmates also make their own extra meals with food from the prison commissary. One favorite is called chi-chis.
AMANDA CORTES: It's where you mix Ramen noodles with cheese puffs. You put it on hot water. You put the meat inside. You can do honey mustard sauce or ranch on top. And you just put it in a potato chip bag, and you mix it up. It's actually pretty good.
ENGLISH: Amanda Cortes has been in jail for five years and eating that way for most of that time. She's facing an involuntary manslaughter charge and waiting for a court date. She says lots of women use food to cope with boredom and depression.
CORTES: Some people get, like, two or three trays, so they get fat like that. And then a lot of people, I noticed, eat a lot of bread. Like, people take whole loaves of bread to their room.
ENGLISH: But during a year of spin class, Cortes dropped 90 pounds. And then, one visiting day, her 10-year-old noticed.
CORTES: When he first seen me, he was like, Mommy, you got skinny (laughter). So I was excited.
ENGLISH: It's early, but among the women who took the cycling class, researchers have already found small improvements in heart health. For NPR News, I'm Taunya English in Philadelphia.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, WHYY and Kaiser Health News.
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