A New York City nonprofit launched by an entrepreneur who spent time behind bars is teaching the formerly incarcerated to become personal trainers—and at the same time puncturing stereotypes that have limited employment opportunities for the millions of Americans with criminal records.
When you walk into the weightlifting room of the CompleteBody gym in the buzzy Chelsea neighborhood in downtown New York City, it feels at first like any other fitness center.
The room vibrates with the thump of barbells and the voices of trainers urging “just one more rep.” The walls are covered with photos of former clients like actor Dwayne Johnson, better known as “The Rock.”
The clients focusing intensely on their workouts—and the trainers urging them on—also look like people you might encounter at any gym. But the usual crowd of office workers also includes a special group of people who until recently were confined behind prison walls.
For the past two years, the CompleteBody gym has been host to a program that trains formerly incarcerated individuals for careers as personal trainers.
“It’s about providing a second chance,” said Hector Guadalupe, who came up with the idea after he was released from prison.
Some 70 individuals have gone through the program, called “A Second U,” since it moved to the gym facility. Successful graduates of the six-week-long course have landed jobs at major sports facilities and health clubs around Manhattan.
Although national attention is increasingly focused on the importance of stable employment and career counseling for the formerly incarcerated, opportunities are still limited because of the stigma associated with time in prison.
And they are further constricted by the legal and social barriers preventing employment of former inmates in many occupations.
A Second U is among the innovative programs that are proving why many of those barriers need to be re-examined.
According to Guadalupe, “returning citizens” (his preferred phrase) deserve a chance to show how they have moved beyond the behavior and attitudes that first landed them in the criminal justice system.”
“93 percent of our graduates have maintained consistent employment,” he said during a recent tour of the facility.
The non-profit group not only recruits, educates and trains participants—both men and women—but helps them with job placement. The program goes beyond physical conditioning training to provide students with tutorials in client relations, managing bookings, and what Guadalupe describes as “mindset training.”
Changing a returning citizen’s “mindset,” says Guadalupe, plays an important role in landing— and keeping—a job. He and his team concentrate as much on developing the social skills of living outside institutional facilities as on the most effective fitness exercises.
Those skills are central to many re-entry programs now underway around the country.
“They teach you what’s appropriate and what’s not.” said Toney Earl, Jr., Founder and Executive Director of M.A.D.E. Transitional Services, a re-entry agency based in Rockland County, NY.
“Someone may give you a shot, but if you blow that by making people uncomfortable, you’re wasting your time.”
A Second U gives its participants training in everything from appropriate dress codes and communications to the importance of being on time.
“These are obvious skills people need in every industry” said Guadalupe, “and we want to make sure our trainers are held to the highest standards.”
Guadalupe’s journey from prisoner to nonprofit entrepreneur came about in part from his own interest in fitness. Convicted at 23 for selling drugs, he served 10 years at the federal prison in Fort Dix, NJ.
When he entered prison, he weighed 280 pounds. After a friend casually remarked that he looked like a “glazed honeybun,” Guadalupe got what amounted to a wakeup call.
He began working out in the facility, and he soon not only lost weight but gained self-confidence. At the same time, he discovered a talent for training others. By the time he was released, he was running the weight room in the prison gym.
That helped him find a job after release at a health club in the Union Square area of Manhattan, and eventually propelled him into his own personal training business. But he also realized he had valuable skills that he could offer to those like him.
Along with a group of friends, all “returning citizens,” he put together the nonprofit “A Second U” with money pooled from their earnings as personal trainers.
Guadalupe soon had more participants interested in personal fitness careers than he could handle on his own.
“At first, I didn’t have much of a life,” he recalled. “But the vision meant everything to me.”
As his clientele increased, he moved to the CompleteBody gym, which caters to independent trainers.
To recruit both trainers and participants, he began visiting halfway houses, federal probation offices, and job fairs for the formerly incarcerated to recruit trainers—and the opportunity offered at A Second U began spreading through word of mouth.
Recruits go through a two-step screening process to enter the program. The first interview is with Guadalupe and the second is with the entire team.
“We don’t want to put energy into people that aren’t coachable and don’t want to learn the system,” explained Rohan Hales, director of recruitment, adding the program often turns people away.
“If they don’t have the desire to really change or do something, then it’s a waste of his time and our time,” he said. “There are people who don’t want to be helped, regardless of whatever you offer them.”
If the individual is not right for the fitness industry, A Second U will refer them to other transitional programs.
A program similar to A Second U has been operating in Boston since 2010.
InnerCity Weightlifting (ICW) trains formerly incarcerated youth identified as “high impact” (whom its website defines as “most likely to shoot or get shot at”) to become certified personal trainers.
According to the ICW website, 173 students have been through the program since it launched, and 56 students are currently in stage two or beyond of a four-stage process that covers “earning trust, building hope, social inclusion, and economic mobility.”
But the challenges facing graduates of ICW, A Second U, and other programs training the formerly incarcerated remain formidable.
One Boston-area firm would not let formerly incarcerated trainers from ICW work with their staff due to the high cost of insurance liability.
That, says Marilyn Oberhardt, a client at ICW, is “absurd.”
She points out that ICW carried its own insurance policy.
In an interview with The Crime Report, Oberhardt reflected on her relationship with the trainers.
“They are giving me incredible athletic support, and teaching me how to get the most out of my body, and I can help them with basic life stuff. That is the power of the relationship.”
Oberhardt noted that her formerly incarcerated trainers had missed out on life skills that she had taken for granted—such as shopping for a mattress.
She encouraged her son, a high school student, to get involved at the gym as well.
Is Transparency Important?
Another challenge is how transparent to be about trainers’ pasts.
In an interview with The Crime Report, Josh Feinman, director of Development & Communications at ICW, says potential clients are told in a brief call about the background of their employees before joining the gym.
“A good part of that call is spent explaining our mission, the nature of our work as a nonprofit, to make sure everyone in our community is on the same page,” he said. “I believe in being upfront, instead of bringing together these two worlds blindly.”
Nevertheless, experts on re-entry differ on the extent to which a previous criminal record should be part of the discussion between prospective employers and employees.
“It’s controversial because some people might say ‘that’s in the past’ and shouldn’t be mentioned,” said Kimora, a criminologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who refers to herself by a single name.
“But in a personal training situation, it’s a very close, personal relationship. Women in particular might feel violated if they didn’t know.”
“If a client goes to someone and they find out later the person has a felony record, they might get scared and wonder why they weren’t told.”
Baz Dreisinger, founder of John Jay’s Prison-to-College Pipeline program, disagrees.
“It’s not relevant to the job at hand,” said Dreisinger, author of Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World . “I don’t think they have to know that kind of personal information.”
“Training someone is not about being their best friend; there’s a professional boundary.”
Former A Second U graduate Craig Sweat says he believes clients “could care less about my previous incarceration.”
“All my clients want to do is train and lose weight,” he said. “Unless someone asks you, it’s not something you bring up as topic of conversation.”
Programs like A Second U and ICW occupy a special niche in programs aimed at reducing recidivism rates.
Although many barriers to employing the formerly incarcerated—such as boxes on employment applications that require applicants to list any former convictions—are dropping, there is still sensitivity about employing ex-prisoners in occupations that involve one-on-one personal contact.
Ironically, fitness and body conditioning are among the skills that can be easily transferred between prison and the outside world. With little else to occupy their time, many inmates find a safe place at the prison gym.
Craig Sweat says his behind-bars background was an attractive plus for some of his clients.
“Our training styles are way different than guys who haven’t been formerly incarcerated,” he said. “We understand the concept of the mechanics of how the body moves. So having that experience alone, and the different styles of training, makes it a little easier for me to get clients.”
That doesn’t remove the need to develop in-prison education and job programs that can help a prisoner learn the skills and self-confidence to adjust to life on the outside, according to Steve Lathrop, a former Nebraska state senator, who served as chairman of the special corrections committee in the Nebraska legislature.
“They are more likely to stay out of trouble and not re-offend, than people who are released with no programming and no new skills,” Lathrop said in an interview.
Still, the highest barrier of all may be the stereotyped thinking that prevents prisoners from getting jobs once they are released.
Toney Earl, Jr. of M.A.D.E. Transitions says popular media help perpetuate stereotypes like “once a criminal always a criminal,” and “the limited thinking that a person is unlikely to change.”
“If you don’t have any encounters with someone formerly incarcerated, your perception is limited to your own personal experiences,” said Earl.
Earl, who is formerly incarcerated, said when he speaks to groups, he is always viewed as the exception, not the rule.
“They can’t envision me being in prison because of the way I present myself,” he said. “If I had some tattoos and do-rag they would’ve had an easier time coming to that conclusion.”
According to Earl, businesses lose the chance to benefit from the energy, resourcefulness and perspectives of a large group of Americans when they discriminate against the formerly incarcerated.
“From a legal perspective, if the nature of the crime has nothing to do with the position the individual is applying for, that should not be a determining factor whether they are or are not eligible for an opportunity with your company,” he said.
However, by definition, personal training adds a special complication to the employer-employee relationship.
“We have had responses in the past like ‘why would I want to train with someone convicted of a crime?’ ” said Josh Feinman, director of Development & Communications at ICW.
“(But) if you can change people’s viewpoints, they often become our most passionate advocates.”
“We haven’t had one person leave the gym because of the work we do,” he said.
“We actually have people who otherwise would not engage in a for-profit fitness service staying with us for long periods of time because they are so passionate about the mission.”
Data collected by InnerCity Weightlifting suggests that personal training offers a successful path to resuming normal lives for individuals who have been imprisoned.
Some 78 percent of students who completed ICW’s full program avoided re-incarceration, according to the organization’s figures.
Hector Guadalupe concedes that some barriers to certification as a personal trainer will always be hard to overcome.
“In this industry, it would be hard for a sex offender to get past the national credited certification companies because it’s 70 percent-dominated by women,” he said.
Programs like A Second U and ICW represent a major step forward in exploding misleading perceptions about the formerly incarcerated, but there is still a long way to go, according to John Jay’s Kimora.
“This country is not where it needs to be when it comes to understanding and having compassion towards people who have been formerly incarcerated,” she said.
Megan Hadley is a news intern with The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.