Lifting the Weight of Incarceration

May 3, 2018, 3:00 PM, Posted by

If your organization is creating a healthier community through sport, learn about the RWJF Sports Award. InnerCityWeightlifting, a 2016 Sports Award Winner, helps at-risk youth and former inmates restore their standing in society.

InnerCity Weightlifting

An hour before his next client is due, Edgardo “Chino” Ortiz is in the glass-walled break room of InnerCity Weightlifting (ICW) in Cambridge, Mass., poring over a study guide to become certified as a personal trainer. Fiercely focused on achieving that goal, he is rarely separated from his worksheets.

“Prescribe RICE,” he says, circling the acronym for “rest, ice, compression and elevation” on a sample quiz question about injury.

All across America, men and women with similar ambitions are prepping for careers in physical fitness. But few share the unique drive that fuels 33-year-old Chino’s determination. For him, getting certified as a fitness trainer is a life-changing turning point, built on his smarts, his talent, and his grit.

Chino recently completed a sentence of five years in a Massachusetts state prison for shooting a man in the leg over drugs. For most former inmates, finding a good job is notoriously difficult. But Chino’s future looks promising because of his connection to ICW. 

Founded in 2010, ICW is a nonprofit with a unique business plan. It takes a skill that many develop while incarcerated—pumping iron—and turns it into a professional asset. With training, and lots of personal support, ICW helps former inmates restore their standing in society while they also earn a good income and learn the ropes of the fitness industry. In 2016, ICW won the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Sports Award—given to professional teams, individuals and organizations that strengthen and serve communities through sport.

ICW works with former inmates who Boston police, probation, and social workers consider “most likely to be involved in firearm violence”—either as a perpetrator or a victim. ICW strives to derail a return to violence by offering men like Chino an opportunity to earn $25 an hour as personal trainers. With two Boston-area locations—Dorchester and Cambridge—ICW serves more than 110 teens and young men. “For the most part,” says ICW founder Jon Feinman, “everyone here has done some time.”

The gym in Cambridge is in Kendall Square, a prosperous neighborhood filled with glass-and-steel towers housing bioscience firms, venture capitalists, and high-tech start-ups.

Chino training Alexa in the gym. Edgardo “Chino” Ortiz and Alexa Baggio

Chino’s noon appointment is with 30-year-old client, Alexa Baggio, a Brown University graduate who describes herself as a “serial entrepreneur.” She co-founded 2020 On-site, an innovative vision care company, and now runs an annual trade show for providers of human resource benefits.

Tee Grizzley’s “First Day Out,” a hip-hop song about a prisoner’s first day of freedom, blares from the gym’s sound system. A section of the floor is covered in Astroturf. Kettlebells sit in a corner. Scrawled in colored markers on a white wall are inspirational phrases: “When the load gets heavy, don’t pray for a lighter load, train for a stronger back,” and “Chess, not checkers,” a popular meme meaning life’s problems often require more complex, strategic solutions.  

Chino sports a sleeve of tattoos that runs from his left wrist to his neck and short braids sticking out the back of a flat-brimmed Red Sox® cap. An avid Boston sports fan, he’s also wearing a New England Patriots® tee shirt. Alexa is tall and strong, wearing a black tank top over workout leggings, with sandy blonde hair in a topknot.

Chino puts her through her paces: planks; bench rows with a dumbbell in each hand; hip thrusts with a medicine ball in her lap. Twenty minutes into the hour-long workout, beads of sweat appear on Alexa’s forehead. Chino throws her a small towel and turns his ball cap backwards.

ICW has personal training contracts with the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), Athenahealth, and other big corporations where ICW trainers often lead group sessions for employees. But the one-on-one trainings, like the workout with Alexa, build the most important bonds. Alexa, a lifelong athlete who played collegiate tennis, says she stumbled upon ICW on the fitness app Mindbody. She wanted to get back in top shape, so she made a phone call and arranged to come in. The luck of the draw paired her with Chino. A self-described “gym rat,” Alexa is at the gym about three or four times a week.

InnerCity Weightlifing personal trainer. For Chino, getting certified as a fitness trainer is a life-changing turning point, built on his smarts, his talent, and his grit.

“Chino is really good at adapting to people,” she says. “I am super into the idea that I can work out for myself, and actually do some good by contributing [to ICW’s mission]. That was like the extra thing. All Chino wants is to add value to the world, do a good job and make some money for his family so he can be independent and enjoy life. I am going to do my part to keep him busy.”

Feinman says the ICW program guides participants through four stages of development: Trust, hope, bridging social capital, and economic mobility—which ICW defines as the ability to make $30,000 a year in any job. Each stage focuses on skills, such as punctuality, networking, and personal responsibility, which will help the former inmates be successful at whatever they choose to do. Every stage is important, Feinman says, but building a foundation of trust and hope is key, because everyone needs a support network.

“What we’ve found is that if you just go straight from trust to economic mobility, you have a much higher chance of going back to jail than if you have hope and you have a network. That’s because jobs come and go. What allows me, a white guy from Amherst, and people like me [to persevere] when we lose a job and lose our income is we probably have a family, probably have a community, probably have a network that we can lean back on.”

Today, Chino has a strong support network that includes his family, his girlfriend, the folks at ICW, and prosperous clients who see him as more than just a former gangbanger.  

One of those clients is Sarah Reed, chief operating officer and general counsel for MPM Capital, a life sciences investment firm. “I used to think adults can’t change,” she says. But working with Chino and ICW “changed my core belief system. He is really smart. If he had been born in my skin, he’d be running a corporation now.”

If your organization is creating a healthier community through sport, learn about the RWJF Sports Award.

about the author

Michael Matza is a former foreign and national correspondent for The Philadelphia Inquirer. An avid traveler, he has reported from more than three dozen countries.