Fifty iron women and 100 jailbirds

Andy Martin witnesses a show of strength at Standford Hill Prison

They counted me in and they counted me out again. I was only visiting for the day; my Uncle Dick's stretch here was a couple of years. If only they had played host to the British Women's Powerlifting Championships back then, he might not have been in such a hurry to get out. I was on the Isle of Sheppey, at the Alcatraz of Kent, in the Standford Hill Prison gym, along with 50 iron women and a captive audience of 100 or so jailbirds.

"Ooh man!" moaned one Rasta con, shaking his dreadlocks as a 56-kilo competitor grappled with a 160-kilo bar, "I'm going to have me some bad dreams tonight." It was unclear if watching women powerlifters at work was entertainment for the men or some subtle form of torture.

"Seventy per cent of these men have never seen the inside of a gym before," said Carl Wootton, a PE officer. Yet there were plenty of genuine powerlifting connoisseurs in the audience. One of them, "Junior", was a well-built card-carrying member of the British Amateur Weightlifting Association. "Her breathing's all wrong," or "Good stance," he would comment knowledgeably.

There is no golf course at Standford Hill prison. But it is an open prison with a relaxed and enlightened regime, where sport is acknowledged as an important form of rehabilitation and a way of bringing insiders and outsiders together.

There is a great tradition of the men behind bars getting underneath them, too, pushing them instead of trying to pull them apart or saw through them. One current British champion learned his art in prison. And there was talk at Standford Hill of a 27-year-old lifer being a contender when he comes out. Here demand outstrips supply. "Everyone races to the gym to get hold of the bars during free time," Junior said.

In the States there is pressure to get rid of weights because, in the mythology, prisoners only lift to look like Mike Tyson and terrorise the general public. But in fact there is a strong rationale for fit muscular convicts. "Seventy-five per cent of all crime is drug- related," Carl Wootton pointed out. "In Liverpool, it's 90 per cent. Here we're teaching them to stop abusing their bodies. It's rehabilitation in every sense." Junior was a good advertisement for the redeeming power of powerlifting. He was doing four years for burglary, which had been driven by a drug habit. "No way I do drugs now," he said. "And that's the truth."

David Hinchley, ex-Cambridge University powerlifting captain and minder to Jackie Blasbery, former champion and one of the main contenders, made some sceptical comparisons of the three powerlifting disciplines - squat, bench press and dead lift - with Olympic lifting. "The clean and jerk and the snatch need more technique and application. Powerlifting is instant gratification. You can pull more weight. It attracts low-lifers." He scrutinised the mob of heavy hombres behind the stage. "There's a very fine line between some of the visitors here and the ones who aren't going home tonight."

Personally, even without arrows on their clothes, I had no difficulty in telling the residents from the competitors. There is a widespread misconception that women who pump iron end up looking like East European shot-putters. But women powerlifters are dedicated to absolute strength, not muscular over-inflation. There is no contradiction between their sport and their femininity.

Jessica Cattan, the defending British champion, turned up with her husband, Raouf, a 7ft tall rugby player. "We have a reverse wedding picture," he said, "of her carrying me."

Cattan is a GP, and 5ft 3in and 59.1kg of sculptured womanhood. "Most of us stay in the same weight class," she said. "We just get more efficient with a higher muscle-to-fat ratio. Unlike the bodybuilders, we don't want to get bigger and heavier. The physique - broader shoulders, tighter bum - is just a by-product. I like being strong."

Watching Toni Hollis "lifting like a train", as someone said, way ahead of the field in the 56kg class and breaking world records, I couldn't help wondering if she might bust anything else - I could almost hear the knees and spine snapping in the squat and dead lift. But Cattan reckoned there was less risk attached to powerlifting than to running and jumping. "You keep your feet still, so there's no impact. They're all natural physiological movements, except maybe for the bench press - unless you're having a wild sexual encounter, that is."

The 60kg class was on next and Cattan went to put on her "power suit", the ultra tight and stiff leotard that gives support in the squat and the deadlift. "You need three people to help you get it on, and it's even worse getting it off again."

In a tight duel, Cattan was out-lifted by Jackie Blasbery (425kg total v 420 kg). On the crowd whistleometer, Paula Roberts, with her tousled Brigitte Bardot hair, probably had the edge.

On my way out of the prison I noticed there was a football pitch. I would recommend it as a convenient venue for the next England-Ireland match: any trouble and the offenders can be dispatched directly to jail without passing go.

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