Muscular Development: “First Year in Prison: Review” by PJ Braun

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The Following Article was originally published in Muscular Development Magazine in April 2023. It is the seventh in a series of articles written while PJ Braun was in prison. You can find previous and future articles in this series here. At the end of this article, you will find an addendum not included in the original publication where PJ reflects on the content of this article.

‘Even though I have been locked up for a year, it could be so much worse.’

PJ Braun

As I write this it’s February 8th [2023], just nine days shy of a year since being incarcerated. For that reason, I decided to do a recap. I am going to break it down CliffsNotes style. February 17th was probably the worst day of my life. Driving to the courthouse to await my fate was brutal. Leading up to that day I was focused on spending as much time with my fiancée Marissa and my family as I could. It still makes me sad at times when I think that it took coming to prison for me to realize I was living life way too fast and missing out on what really matters to me. 

The last couple of months before coming to prison was a special time for me. The upcoming sentencing was always looming in my mind– anxiety and depression were consistent feelings that consumed me. This contributed to me being lazy and sloppy with my training and nutrition. I had stopped taking growth hormone about a month before the incarceration and I noticed that I had softened up quite a bit; losing some fullness and vascularity. I stayed on testosterone all the way to the sentencing and was hoping to be able to stay on the test because of my doctor’s recommendation letter. When I was pulled out of court in handcuffs and went through intake at the main jail in Fort Lauderdale, I found out quickly that the BOP [Federal Bureau of Prisons] does things differently. 

I was told I could not be on any of my prescription meds, stripped of my clothing, and tossed in a detox room for a week before being able to meet with a doctor who put me back on Paxil at a higher dose of 40 milligrams instead of my normal 30 milligrams. The reason I mention this is because one of the side effects of Paxil is weight gain, which I will get to later. I went from Main Jail to county jail for another week and then to FDC Miami, where I spent the first 38 days in quarantine, locked up 23 hours a day and barely eating. This was very hard. In the beginning of that quarantine phase was when I knew my hormones were crashing. I had been on Testosterone for most of the last 20 years. It was very strange, to say the least. 

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Sometimes I would get so depressed and emotional out of nowhere that I would face the wall of my cell and tears would stream down my face like a faucet. A year later the emotions are in check, but my energy is low. 

I did have some great experiences in Miami, though. My “celly,” Francisco, got me back to God and was an excellent guide on how prison works. I learned how to move the right way. When you are in a facility with guys who have spent most of their time in high-level security, you learn a lot about the way the system works, and you develop a different level of respect that isn’t seen in most of the self-surrender guys at the camp in Alabama. It is a privilege to be at a camp and many of the guys here worked their way down the system over many years. At the same time, I don’t think you should have to be at a “pen” to know manners and respect. I learned how to make weights with garbage bags filled with water that were tied up inside laundry bags and sheets and I started training hard.

When I left Miami, I went back to lockdown again in Atlanta for a month before I got on the bus to Montgomery. I felt like I was starting all over again but I was ready. Unfortunately, there are no weights here so I got creative with bodyweight exercises and developed a full-body routine that I was doing every day until I came to RDAP [Residential Drug Abuse Program]. At that point back in August, I started training one body part a day with a ton of volume. I am talking 30 sets or more with supersets. Along the way, much of this has been a blur but a few moments really stick out: Cedric McMillan and Bostin Loyd, RIP. These were hard phone calls with my dad that broke my heart. 

I did a lot of reflection on life outside of bodybuilding this year. I thought about my drug and diuretic use while I was competing and my desire to be the biggest and best. I was pretty conservative for the most part but also took some chances toward the end. I wonder if those chances will catch up to me later. We are always quick to say, “The steroids did it” but we are also quick to say, “Well, he must have had a preexisting condition.” Regardless, guys are dying young and I feel there has to be more time spent getting blood work done and working with doctors no matter what. I know guys who have died young that were the picture of health on the outside, but that doesn’t mean shit if you don’t know what’s going on inside. 

Then you have guys who just don’t care and want to be big at all costs. If that’s their decision, then so be it– it was their choice. I have had guys tell me they want to die young and jacked and not old and frail. Who am I to say what a person can and can’t do, when they are aware of the potential risk and ignoring it out of pure self-will? I would like to die old and mentally strong, but I want some muscle too. 

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The moment that sticks out as by far the best was when I finally got to see and touch Marissa for the first time after almost nine months. I have never felt that combination of nerves, anxiety and excitement at such a high level in my life. When we ran to each other in visitation and embraced with a kiss, it had to look straight out of a blockbuster Hollywood romance movie.I will never forget the way we cried together, in pure jubilation, when I heard her say, “Why is your heart beating like that?!” and I  replied, “Because I am so excited to see you again.” I thank God every day for her love. 

Speaking of her and her love, it’s kept me really motivated and strong. A lot of guys don’t have anyone on the outside and that can be a struggle. I see it and live with it; guys who literally have no one. I am blessed and I have so much gratitude for the people in my life. My dad has done awesome with Blackstone Labs™, and I never have to worry about anything with him and my partner, Jared Wheat. I am not a momma’s boy, but I sure do love the love my mom shows, day in and out. 

What I am trying to say with all this is that even though I have been locked up for a year, it could be so much worse. I have learned to have more positive self-talks and find the silver lining in everything. I have learned to trust God and his process for me, and I have learned to be present and not worry as much about things I can’t control. What I can control is myself and my actions. I choose to get up before count every day and be first outside to train. It makes me feel great and accomplished. I conduct myself with respect and integrity

When it comes to fitness and bodybuilding on the compound, there hasn’t been a day in a while that I haven’t been asked for help and taken the time to explain and help as much as I can. I know very well how positive bodybuilding and fitness can be for everyone, physically and spiritually. I’ve missed the bodybuilding shows but I have friends like Guy Cisternino, Billy Gagliardo and Nick Trigili, who email me about what is going on. I have Muscular Development magazine in my corner giving me a voice, but I also rely on the magazine to keep my finger on the pulse of the industry. I get so excited when the mail comes, knowing that the next issue of MD is here.

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My training is going as good as it can be. I am a big but kind of chubby at 275 pounds, but if you know me like my Blackstone Labs™ family does, then you would know that means next year’s BEAT PJ contest is going to be our biggest ever and NO ONE is going to beat me this time! 

Thank you all for reading. If you have requests on what you want me to write about, submit them to the Blackstone Labs™ Instagram. 

I love you all, peace out, bye!

Instagram @pjbraunfitness
Instagram @blackstone_labs

Editor’s Note (June 2024): Prior to posting this article, PJ Braun was requested for comment and asked to reflect on the content of this article. This was his response. It has been edited for clarity.

Wow I covered a lot in this one, its actually overwhelming for me to go back and read it. Rather than break this down part by part, I want to talk about my battle with anxiety and panic attacks, though I have been very open with them for years now.

My panic attacks did not start happening until my early 30’s and the first few were so bad I thought I was having a heart attack and went to the hospital. I even went to a top cardiologist because I was sure something was wrong with my heart. He told me I was perfectly healthy, and let me tell you, we did a lot of tests. Fast forward to my big drinking phase, which actually made my anxiety worse. I ended up in the hospital for six days with alcohol poisoning and almost died. The doctors put me on Lorazepam to combat the withdrawals and I found I responded better to this than to my prescription Xanax.

All of this was excessive. As I got close to my trial I took the advice of my Partner, Jared Wheat, and went to a shrink to get on Paxil. Paxil saved me, especially since I had to be off the other stuff while in prison. Once I got into the BOP they put me on the highest dose of Paxil. I was tired all the time, had no sex drive (which was perfectly fine with me), and I literally gave no fucks about anything going on around me. It made the time much easier.

Once I got into the RDAP program I started intensely working on myself 24/7 for over a year. Whether I wanted to or not, I couldn’t escape treatment, but I welcomed it all because I wanted to go home a better man. Once I got close to going home I felt I had changed my way of thinking so much that I asked the doctor if we could lower my dose from 40 to 30mg and eventually down to 20mg. I was advised to stay on 20mg though because my transition to the free world would be hectic and I would have at least some level of PTSD.

I would like to share with you all that I have been off Paxil and all other medications since March and I feel great. I have not had a panic attack in years and when my emotions start to get to me I am able to do a rational self-analysis and “self talk” my way to better thoughts that keep me happy and healthy, living a pro social lifestyle.

So I am thankful for the help I got from Paxil, but had I not gone through all the work I did in prison I would still be relying on it.