Leon El-Alamin poses with participants from the first version of the fitness program for formerly incarcerated individuals that took place last year. (Courtesy of M.A.D.E. Institute and Michigan State University)

Flint, MI– As Leon El-Alamin worked with formerly incarcerated individuals over the years, he noticed a pattern.

Those coming out of prison and jail were not getting the medical attention they needed once they returned to the community, he said, and their health suffered. 

“When you’re incarcerated, (healthcare) is very poor. You’re limited to the type of resources of healthcare coverage you can get in there,” El-Alamin said. “And what we found is that, because of that, a lot of individuals’ health conditions worsened. Things such as hypertension, I had a couple folks who came home with cancer, and some things like that.”

El-Alamin is a formerly incarcerated individual himself, and the founder of the M.A.D.E. Institute, a nonprofit organization on a mission to help people returning from the criminal justice system. 

M.A.D.E, which stands for for Money, Attitude, Direction, and Education started in 2015 and provides comprehensive programming to help formerly incarcerated people enter the workforce, find housing, develop life skills, and deal with their trauma. 

Now, M.A.D.E. is partnering with Michigan State University on a project to address the health issues he’s seen in the people he’s worked with over the years. 

The project is called Harnessing Education and Lifestyle Change to Support Transitional Health (or HEALTH) for Returning Citizens: A Pilot Study. It will be funded by a two-year, $50,000 grant from the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation.

Through this program, about 30 returning citizens from the Flint and Genesee County area will learn about nutrition, healthy living, and fitness. Eight individuals will be trained to become certified fitness instructors and El-Alamin said other individuals may receive nutritionist certification as well.

“Given the high disease burden and unique educational needs of returning citizens, this project fills an important gap in the support services currently offered to this population,” said Rodlescia Sneed, assistant professor in the Division of Public Health in the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, in a press release about the study. 

According to a research study about the prevalence of chronic medical conditions of inmates in the United States compared with the general population,  jail and prison inmates had higher odds of hypertension, asthma,  arthritis, cervical cancer, and hepatitis.

Mental health issues are prevalent among inmates too. Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that, in 2005, more than half of all prison and jail inmates had mental health problems. 

“Formerly incarcerated individuals—or returning citizens—face significant barriers in accessing health care and engaging in activities that promote health and wellness,” Sneed said in the release. “Healthy eating and physical activity depend on numerous social determinants of health, including food access, adequate housing, community/social support, education, and income.” 

As returning citizens often face gaps in these areas, this study aims to fill the gaps.

“When you’re limited on resources and money and things like that, you can’t necessarily get some of the things that some of us who may be a little well off, have access to,” El-Alamin. “So to have it come directly to the people I think is huge.”

El-Alamin said he conducted a version of this study last year, for a shorter amount of time and with fewer participants. Even then, he said the program had a “great impact.”

“We got a great response from the community, and it was overwhelming,” he said. With the funding available, he knew he wanted to do this again. 

“We said, ‘We have to do this again,’ because we know how important it is to be fit and healthy, especially when you’re combating social determinants of health,” El-Alamin said. 

Programming for the project will begin on March. 13, and cover American Red Cross and First Aid certifications. Then, starting March 24, participants will begin fitness instructor training and certification.

In addition to health and fitness training, participants in the program will also be given gym memberships. El-Alamin said those working on the study will push participants to make their appointments, be consistent, get their family involved, and achieve their health goals.

“Each individual’s a little different. You may have someone who’s overweight, and they’re coming in to try to lose weight. … You may have someone who is trying to gain weight,” he said. “The program is designed to where it caters to that particular individual’s needs. We know about individuals having depression issues, high blood pressure, and things like that. So we’re going to make sure that the particular workouts that we do with these individuals fit what’s needed for them, so that they improve their health.” 

Improving their health is obviously the main goal of the project, but it is also designed to give the participants career opportunities with the skills they’ll be developing. 

“Training formerly incarcerated adults to serve as fitness trainers will provide these individuals with a skill that can then be leveraged for future employment and income opportunities,” Sneed said in the release. “This is so important because this population often has difficulty finding work due to their criminal backgrounds.”

El-Alamin said once the individuals are trained, they’ll become certified fitness coaches for the M.A.D.E. Institute, and can begin leading their own classes, and potentially start their own businesses down the line.

A similar fitness program for formerly incarcerated people exists in the New York City area, and has seen success with participants maintaining consistent employment upon completing training. 

A Second U Foundation is a personal training business founded by Hector Guadalupe, a man who spent 10 years in federal prison and developed a “passion for fitness,” when he returned home, according to his website. 

“A Second U Foundation works to make sure that people coming home are not defined by their sentence, but given the tools needed to be successful,” the site states. “We offer skills and guidance, while providing a community to support them, as they create careers and rebuild their lives.”

Their program works in three parts: recruitment, education, and job placement. The education portion is a 10-week intensive training which includes prepping for the certification exam, learning salesperson skills, and shadowing established fitness professionals. 

Their site reports that only 2.3% of Second U Participants re-offended, and that 93% of participants maintained consistent employment. 

El-Alamin said he hopes his program helps to empower people to take control of their life. 

“We know health is wealth. And when you feel good and look good, you know, you perform better as a person carrying on with your day, we need that,” El-Alamin said.

On a bigger scale, he said this program has the potential to be larger than a pilot study, and could be duplicated on a larger scale for years to come.

In a press release, Sneed said that if this “physical activity and nutrition model,” is effective, it “could be broadly implemented within community reentry programs around the country.”

If that happens, El-Alamin said, he would be able to advocate for more funding to expand the program and “create more opportunities to really help more people.” Funding has been one of his biggest challenges since creating the M.A.D.E. Institute. 

“I think once we get to the next level of having a full commercial space, to run all our programs and programs such as this one, I think the community will really see what M.A.D.E.’s vision is really all about,” he said. “At times it is kind of challenging because we’re limited in our space … So once we can kind of pass that, man, I think the impact is going to be so huge.”

He says as the program grows, he would like to see it implemented into the school system to teach the youth healthy habits early. 

“ We want to provide this opportunity to younger folks to start learning and making some good decisions on how they eat, how they take care of their bodies, as they grow to be young adults and ultimately become adults,” he said. 

Until then, El-Alamin said the participants lined up for this program are excited. 

“They’re looking for something positive to do, and get out of their homes and participate and be around good energy, something that’s going to make them feel good,” he said. “So it’s been all good vibes, and all positive energy, and people are excited.”

Amy Diaz is a journalist hailing from St. Petersburg, FL. She has written for multiple local newspapers in her hometown before becoming a full-time reporter for Flint Beat. When she’s not writing you...