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NOLA to Angola solidarity ride fills its ranks

3rd October 2011   ·   0 Comments

By Zoe Sullivan
Contributing Writer

You’ve probably noticed the growing number of cyclists pedaling around New Orleans. For some, cyclists just take up space on a road that was really meant for cars. For others, pedalers are reducing our dependency on fossil fuels and helping slow climate change. Now a dedicated group of New Orleans bike riders are preparing a 160-mile solidarity ride to support family members of those in Louisiana prisons.

Each month, Cornerstone Builders’ Bus Project rents a bus with 55 seats at a cost of approximately $1,000. The organization offers free transportation to family members of inmates at six prisons: Angola, Dixon Correctional Institute, Tallulah Transitional Center for Women, Avoyelles Correctional Center and Rayburn Correctional Center. For Eddie Martin, who visits his stepsons thanks to the bus service, the solidarity bike ride is “beautiful.”

No longer a car owner due to financial difficulties, Martin says that his visits mean a great deal to his stepsons. “Nobody else goes and visits. I’m the only one who goes…. At least I let them know that they’re not thrown away; they have somebody still thinking about them.”

Louisiana ranks first in the nation in the percentage of incarcerated men, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics while according to July data from the Louisiana Department of Corrections, African-Americans account for almost 70 percent of the total prison population. Faced with harsh statistics such as these, the NOLA to Angola organizers began planning the trip to raise awareness.

“I’m really excited about it” said Leo Jackson, who leads Cornerstone Builders, a Catholic Charities initiative. Jackson admits that when he first heard about the idea, he had doubts, but his concerns were laid to rest after participating in a meeting and hearing the planning for the route. “I think it’s a pretty unique ride. And their contribution, we appreciate it so very much.”

Jackson estimated that since the program started in 2007 the Cornerstone buses have transported 3,000 people to visit their incarcerated relatives. “Some months when our funding is good, we sometimes double up and send two buses,” Jackson noted, adding that “around the holidays like Christmas or Mother’s Day…we go to two different institutions on those days.” In a press release, Jackson said “The more we can keep the family intact, the more we can effect positive change. We want to keep lines of communication open between prisoners and their families.”

The project aims to make the ride as comfortable as possible by providing water and sometimes light refreshments. Additionally, the bus serves as an vehicle for Cornerstone’s mentoring program. Youth who take the trip to visit relatives are offered the opportunity to be partnered with a positive role model from the community who can provide positive emotional support.

For some of those making the bike ride, the connection to the families riding the bus is more than just theoretical. As a youngster, Courtney Ann Miller and her family would make an annual visit to her uncle who was on death row at San Quentin State Prison in California.

“Our prison system leaves these convicted individuals worse off than before they were incarcerated,” Miller said in an email. “I hope this project brings some public awareness to our demoralizing and counterproductive prison system and achieves it[s] goal of facilitating transportation for family members and loved ones to visit those who need them.”

Although the ride focuses on solidarity for the families of those in prison, it will also include an introduction to the Louisiana landscape and the forces that shape it. Scott Eustis, a coastal scientist with The Gulf Restoration Network, will be making the ride and sharing his understanding of both the human and natural elements at work. “As we ride, I’ll be talking to the other cyclists about why we see certain features of the landscape, why we see the levees where they are, why we see the sugar cane fields, and why we see the refineries next to the sugar cane fields,” Eustis explained.

Another of the ride’s four main organizers, Steve Merlan expressed his hope that as the “first annual” NOLA to Angola ride. “All the ground work we’ve done on this in terms of setting a route, [will make it] a lot easier, and we’ll be able to fix what we didn’t do right and be able to make it better,” he said

On October 14th, a group of 25 riders will depart from New Orleans on a three-day journey to the Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola). Each rider is collecting sponsors, and the NOLA to Angola web site says that the goal is for each person to raise at least $250, a total of $6,000, which would support six months of buses. According to Jackson, Cornerstone has been working to develop partnerships that support the bus project so that it can become sustainable and grow. Jackson said that four partners are already involved, including the Jefferson and Orleans Parish Sheriffs’ offices, and they aim to provide 20 buses over the course of 2012.

Reflecting on the bike trip’s potential impact, Eustis said, “I hope the ride is a way for people outside to connect with people inside.” Acknowledging that the group has managed to fill all 25 rider slots weeks ahead of the ride, Eustis added: “I think people have been interested in it because it’s simple and it provides human connections.”

This article was originally published in the October 3, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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