How This Ex-Con Is Using Fitness To Set Men Free



As Kwon began to find his feet in the prison system, he noticed that there were three main tribes among inmates: gamblers, junkies and trainers. With his attitude now firmly geared toward bettering himself, he gravitated to the trainers.

“Jail’s about how you spend your time,” he says. “I knew a lot of problems start either because you’ve got a gambling debt or you’ve got a drug debt. That’s where all the fights happen. The guys that were training, though, they all had a positive mindset.”

While he had a martial arts background, Kwon hadn’t really lifted much before prison. In his decade inside he would come across former bodybuilders, amateur boxers and seasoned prisoners, all happy to share their knowledge. “It just gets passed on from the previous generation of inmates,” he says. 

Kwon dedicated himself to learning all he could about the body and the way it responds to volume, load, nutrition and rest, even poring over old copies of MH in the prison library. Training in prison, he discovered, was defined by two things: camaraderie and consistency. “You train with the boys. It’s very regimented. Every day at this time, this is when we train, this is what we do. It just becomes a way of life.”

While in movies you might see inmates clanking huge loads on rusted equipment to grinding hip-hop basslines, in reality, Kwon says, you had to improvise. “It’s mostly all body weight, or we had to make weights out of what we had,” he says. “There’s a lot of garbage bags filled with water. We used to do shoulder carries with the heaviest guy you could find in the yard. There’s not much load, but we would do it at high intensity, which meant lots of reps. The intensity of that training is hard.”

Relatively lean when he walked into prison, Kwon began grabbing protein any way he could to bulk up. “Because we don’t get enough [protein] in there, we would just smash six cans of tuna to make our protein count,” he says. “Inmates get so jacked because there’s a lot of calories in our food, like instant noodles. If you’re training twice a day and you’re resting as much as we do – some of the boys sleep 11 hours a day – there’s nothing else to do except train, eat, grow and study.”

But the changes to his body weren’t the only reason Kwon enjoyed training. Even more powerful was that for a few precious moments it took him beyond the walls that enclosed him. “When I trained, it was like my escapism,” he says. “Even though my body was incarcerated, my mind was free.”


Greasy with sweat I’m struggling to hold a plank in the sauna-like conditions under the grandstand at Callan Park. “If your stomach touches the ground, you know what you’ve got to say to yourself?” Kwon asks the group. “Soft as butter.” Somewhat galvanised, I tighten my core until Kwon calls time, as I imagine a pair of inmates using the line to motivate each other in the yard. 

Kwon walked out of prison in November 2017 after serving nine years of his sentence, certain of one thing: he wasn’t going back. Before getting out he’d reached out to a senior lecturer at UNSW, Dr Natalie Oh, who’d previously helped other inmates get into university. With her help he applied to do a Bachelor of Commerce degree, which he will finish later this year. 

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