Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

Counting Steps

Edie walking in Castro Barona
My uncle George has always been a health-conscious guy.  Unlike his father, who subsisted primarily on roast beef, Wild Turkey and Mallomars, George is a vegetarian.  He doesn't drink.  He practices Yoga and meditation.  He lives on the West Coast and wears Tevas.  He's a cool dude.

Good choices and genetics kept George tall and lanky well into his 40s, but then middle-age started to catch up with him.  He shaved his beard, got a desk job and alas, even Mr. Metabolism started to get kind of soft and round in the belly.  As Stevie sings, "Children get older" and George is getting older, too.  So, he went to talk to his doctor.  The doctor gave him a pedometer, told him to walk 10,000 steps a day and advised him to stop eating cheese.  George did exactly that and the belly disappeared. You go, George.

It was the summer of 2010 when I heard this story and saw the results.  I was so impressed that I went straight to and bought myself a pedometer.  (The "no more cheese" thing was more than my little brain could bear, but the pedometer sounded fun.)  At the time, my kids were with Jaime in Spain and I was alone at home with Argos and Kitty.  August 2010 was the month of the pedometer.  I took the dog on long walks through East Rock Park, rode the bus to work, went out for lunch, and easily made the 10,000 step goal every day.  Then Fall set in.  The kids returned, it got dark at 5pm, and the only walking I did was from my front door to my minivan and from my parking space to my desk.  It was so depressing.  I could barely make 1,000 steps.  I could still get exercise from time to time by going to the gym, but it wasn't the same.  Walking outside, breathing the fresh air, going somewhere - that feels good.

Now that we are living in Spain, I am a woman without a minivan.  We have a car, that Jaime drives, but you aren't going to see me behind the wheel of that stick-shift in a city of tiney, tiny parking spots and stop signs on 45 degree hills.  So now I am walking again.  Trip to the pharmacy this afternoon?  2,138 steps, uphill.  Spaniards certainly love their cars, but in this small college town, everyone walks everywhere.  Better watch out George, I'm back in the game.

As it turns out, the value of a daily walk is not lost on those who are incarcerated.  The inertia of prison life was something that I heard much about when interviewing women about their experiences with food while incarcerated.  The women described many of the meals in the cafeteria as inedible, but almost all of them would consistently go to meals "for the walk."  The opportunity to stand up, get in line, and walk to the cafeteria is a treasured part of the day.  The walk to the cafeteria at the York Correctional Facility (YCI) generally involves walking outside, which is an added bonus.  One woman spoke at length about the beauty of her early morning walks to the cafeteria - she described feeling the weather, smelling the sea, hearing the sounds of birds and wind.  It's only a 5 minute walk, but any length of walk is appreciated by those who spend most of the day not moving.

When women first arrive at YCI, they go through an intake process in the medical unit that takes about 1-2 weeks.  During this time, the women are in a dorm-like cell with up to 5 other women.  The locked room has three bunk beds, a shower and a toilet.  Women do not leave this cell except to participate in intake activities (e.g. orientation meeting, health exam, etc), so they are in the cell about 23 hours a day.  All their meals are delivered on trays to the cell.  They sleep, they talk and they sit.

Once women transfer to the regular units where inmates are housed, there are more opportunities for movement.  There is back and forth within the unit - between the sleeping areas and the common rooms.  There are jobs and classes to attend, medications to be retrieved.  But there still isn't a lot of movement.  After all, the women are incarcerated and movement is generally considered antithetical to security by prison management - the need to know where everyone is at all times discourages steps.  In this study, I did not assess the number of steps that women take each day while incarcerated at YCI, but my guess is that it would be way under 10,000 because the 5 minute walk to the cafeteria was clearly described as a unique and valued opportunity.   

Very few steps and a fair amount of cheese.  (While women reported that cheese is rarely served in the cafeteria, there is a Cheez Whiz-like product that is a popular item for sale from the prison store.) I am sure it would come as no surprise to you, or George's doctor, that most of the middle aged women who I talked to came out of prison very soft and round in the belly.  Many of us don't get our steps when we live in the community, but we could if really wanted to.  It seems obvious now, but it wasn't something I had really thought about.  Being locked up means not moving, literally not going anywhere, for a really long time.  So if you can walk outside today, do it, just because you can.