From HMP Pentonville to becoming a personal trainer and now designer of a range of clothing. When LJ Flanders had “a crazy moment” and got into an argument, which landed him in jail, he must not have known it would lead him to an exclusive clothing line deal with Next.
LJ, 32, from Bow, was jailed in 2011 after getting into a fight – the first time he had contact with police. He describes the moment he was led down the hall to his cell as “very, very surreal”.
He told MyLondon: “I just didn’t expect to be in jail, it was a huge shock. I wasn’t the instigator. [of the fight] but I was caught. I was arrested at the scene and then I know I’m in jail. The whole process of going to jail, it was so surreal.
Read more:“I left prison and slept on the floor of my living room as if it were a cell”
“I’ll never forget being walked down the halls and getting banged for the first time. Overthinking how I can’t contact my family, not have a phone, get the prison tracksuit. All your freedoms are taken away from you. You have no concept of time because you don’t have a watch.”
LJ was sentenced to three years in prison – serving 14 months – and transferred to HMP Pentonville, north London. He said that as the days and days went by when he was alone with his thoughts, it caused him to overthink and he could feel himself falling into a dark place. He knew he needed to change his mind and use his time productively – and he did.
“I started training in my cell – that was the plan”
He said: “You’re literally stoned 23 hours a day. You’re just standing there thinking, ‘What am I doing? I needed to get out of it. The turning point for me was education in prison. I lacked structure before prison, I was lost. It was the first time I really embraced education. Being dyslexic, I struggled in college. Rather than fighting the prison, I thought what can I do when I’m in and out of my cell that will make me feel better?”
Having never set foot in a gym before his time behind bars, LJ signed up for a level 3 personal fitness class – a class he got into that would go on to change his life. for all time. He added: “I had to tell myself that it was like going to university. I thought that instead of blaming myself, I had to turn it into a positive.
“You have people who would just stay in their cell in bed. The mental process of getting up, making my bed, getting my course books and arriving early helped me out of the prison environment. I tell people now, Whatever your situation, think about how you can make the most of each day? Don’t put your life on hold. You can strive for betterment.
It was after finishing the course and getting a job at the prison gym that LJ came up with the idea for his book, Cell Workout. He faced long periods of confinement trying to keep fit in his cell. He was then overwhelmed by fellow inmates asking him to come up with structured workouts for them – exercises they too could do while locked in the confined space.
But it hasn’t always been easy. Inmates were often only able to visit the prison gymnasium once a week, and the limitations of a cell and no specialist equipment meant limited progress. Many of his “clients” also had specific requirements – like coming back from an injury or not having English as a first language. So LJ put pen to paper and came up with training plans in a simple and accessible way.
And without internet in prison, it was completely self-taught. He said: “I drew 186 idea drawings until the day of my release [of different exercises]. It started out as stick men and ended up being anatomically accurate designs. I went to the prison library to look for books on personal training – but the only ones they had, the pages I needed were often ripped out. Everything was therefore self-taught.
“It just goes to show that if you have free time, you can do anything. I was my most creative when I was in prison. I had no technology and no distractions. I had some paper and a pencil . On the outside, we have too many distractions.” After serving half his sentence, LJ was released from prison in 2012, armed with his “Cell Workout” plan. And determined to have it published in a book.
“Who am I not to give someone a second chance?
But first – he wanted to be sure he had plans in place to ensure he never went back to prison – like getting a job. He said: “My first goal was to reconnect with my family and friends, my second was to find a place to live and third was to find a job. That for me is the foundation of not going back.
“I first went back to living with my mum, I didn’t go out with my friends, I kept it really cool and I didn’t tell a lot of people I was gone. As far as work goes , before I got out of prison, I wrote down where my local gyms were. I always tell people, “Don’t leave prison and then ask what now?” You should ask yourself the question before you leave.
“I prepared everything beforehand – including my CV. I had an interview at the local Virgin Active two weeks after leaving. I was honest about what happened and got the job. The general manager said to me ‘who am I not to give someone a second chance?’ and it has stuck with me ever since.
Having secured a solid job, LJ’s attention turned to his dream of getting his book published. With the help of The Prince’s Trust, he finally did. From leaving Pentonville to the arrival of the first hard copy of his book on his doorstep, it took only three years. LJ says her exercise regimen is ideal for anyone who lacks the space to work out, including people who live in apartments or studios.
Now, with a bestselling book under her belt, LJ’s business ventures have branched out. He released an athleisure collection with Next – called Cell Workout – inspired by mediocre gym clothes in prison.
He said: “The prison tracksuits when I was in prison were really bad. They were men only. Very uncomfortable and ill-fitting. Sometimes you had a long sleeve and a short one. [My clothing range is] for the general public, but family and friends can also send it to people in prison.”
Along with running his social enterprise, LJ takes the time to inspire others in prison to change their lives, like he did. He doesn’t just want to be a rogue success in the overcrowded prison system, he says.
“The opportunities have to be there in the prison system,” he added. “Testimonials from people who have been there and done it and say you can change your life – it will inspire people to try their luck. Jail may be all anyone has ever known .
“Most of the time it’s not their fault – maybe they were born into the problem. You have to try to inspire people in prison to want to take a different path.”
You can find LJ’s collection with Next by following the link here.