Fitness program changing lives at Utah State Prison

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DRAPER -- Many of you join us every week on KSL 5 for NBC's hit show "The Biggest Loser." Something similar is happening in Utah, but in a gym that's only accessible to a certain population.

A voice rings out over the deafening music from a boom box. High energy translates into high hopes. Dozens of women in the Utah State Prison cannot change their circumstances but they can improve their lives.

Several years ago an inmate, now the main instructor, Ferosa Bluff, developed a fitness program and gradually turned a little-used gym into a place where many find friendship and support.

Instructor Ferosa Bluff
Instructor Ferosa Bluff

"In 2007, I drafted a proposal to teach the women some exercise classes here, but my vision was beyond an exercise class. It was actually to instill motivation, camaraderie, teamwork and to actually bring about a life-changing purpose for the women. That was the vision I originally had and it's taken place now in two classes that I teach," Bluff said. "Now we actually have a more positive environment. For me, that's the blessing and the benefit right there for me to keep doing it. I believe the purpose behind it is to help another human being. That makes it all worthwhile for me."

The women say it's worthwhile for them. Coming from broken homes, struggling with low self-esteem, having committed serious crimes, they say they are not only improving their bodies but also their minds.

I believe the purpose behind it is to help another human being. That makes it all worthwhile for me.

–Ferosa Bluff

"She just pushes us. We call her ‘ferocious' because she's so good at it," Sarah Gallegos said with a smile. "She just teaches us balance, keeps us sane, especially as addicts. We always have a weight problem, so we get out and go back to our addictions. In here, we get the training and the weight loss and walk out and feel good."

Crystal Huffman agreed, saying, "It affects every part of your life. When you feel good and you build your self-esteem, it helps you to be able to want more for yourself and not allow the things that hindered you in your life before still hinder you."

Bonnie Chun said, "I believe if you can do a workout program successfully, then it's going to bring everything else in your life together -- spirituality, fitness, academics, leisure. You have to have that balance."

Tracey Soules said, "There's a lot of guilt and shame and issues that come up when you're here in prison and every day being reminded of what brought you here. Becoming a part of this program was really life changing for me because we're a team here."

It affects every part of your life. When you feel good and you build your self-esteem, it helps you to be able to want more for yourself and not allow the things that hindered you in your life before still hinder you.

–Crystal Huffman

Eighty-five percent of the women are in prison because of crimes involving drugs. They say this program helps them break their addictions.

Creselda Pando worked out before she went to prison but had difficulty breaking her drug habit.

"I'm clean and sober now. I discovered it was so much more than a class, it's an experience, and by that I mean you don't just come here and work out or do it, you live it," she said.

Melissa Lyon offended and re-offended because of her weight.

"I've been a big girl most of my life, and so when I was introduced to meth it was an easy way to lose weight. Now, I'm to the point where I don't just go and jog or come to Ferosa's class to lose weight, I feel good about myself," she said.

"To me, Ferosa is like Jillian Michaels," said Sawsan Whitelaw. "I watch her every week, and that woman pushes and pushes and I have my own Jillian Michaels, you know what I mean, to push and push and push just like she does."

Sarah Ataata described it this way: "This is a lifestyle, and every choice you make, within this lifestyle, has to be healthy, whether it's what you're eating, what you're doing, in your recreational time. And so it's helped me tremendously."

The corrections officers support the program. They see improvement in health and attitude.

Elaina-Louise Howes, in charge of gym security and developing new programs, described one success story. "The most obvious changes have been physical. I had one paroled about three weeks ago and I called her my poster child. She was in at least one class every session for a year and a half," she said. "By the time she left, she'd lost almost 65 pounds. She looked like a different person and she acted like a different person. She was happier, she was more confident and she had reduced or stopped taking some of her medications because she didn't need them anymore.

She continued, "Most of them are here for drug-related offenses, and the reasons they start taking drugs are numerous and varied; they mostly go back to trauma. And we have all kinds of programs dealing with their issues, both as victims and as offenders, but one of their bigger reasons for relapse is weight gain. They gain weight and the only way they know to lose it is to use drugs. They have no background in nutrition, often no background in exercise. They don't know how to lose weight in a healthy way, so they will either use drugs or they will do extreme diets. We've got a body shaping class, which is focused on healthy weight loss that teaches them both exercise and nutrition information. I won't say it's a magic bullet and that everyone makes huge changes, but I have seen some really big changes in some of them. And it's kind of cool."

The women say they understand why they are in prison, but they believe that participating in this fitness program will help them change their lives and someday leave and not return.



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