Forty cyclists set off from Orleans Parish Prison on Friday morning bound for the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, a three-day trek designed to raise money for a bus service that allows families to visit loved ones in the state’s prison system.

The 170-mile trip requires riders to camp overnight in Gonzales and West Feliciana Parish, but the distance underscores the point that the fourth annual “Nola to Angola” ride is trying to make: If you think it’s far on a bike, imagine the gulf for the thousands of inmate relatives in the New Orleans area who don’t have a car to make the drive.

“It draws attention to that distance because when people hear about it, they’re so incredulous: ‘You bike all that way?’ ” said Nicky Gillies, one of the ride’s organizers. “But it really makes a point about the separation.”

Cornerstone Builders’ Bus Project started in 2007, chartering two or three buses a year. But with help from the cycling fundraiser, which raised almost $25,000 last year, Cornerstone now offers as many as two bus trips per month from New Orleans not just to Angola but also to the Avoyelles, Rayburn, Dixon and Hunt correctional centers.

Founder Leo Jackson, pastor of Second Zion Baptist Church in Marrero, said it costs about $1,200 to charter a bus for a single trip. With about 50 passengers per bus, the program has grown from serving 150 people a year to about 700 people.

Jackson said about 40 percent of the riders on trips are regulars and about 60 percent are new riders.

“There are a lot of people who do not own an automobile,” he said.

Jackson, who went to Angola at age 27 to serve a double life sentence for selling heroin but was pardoned in 2006 after 32 years, said inmates who regularly see their families have fewer disciplinary issues. Maintaining a connection to loved ones on the outside provides hope and makes for an easier transition upon release, he said.

“Usually when a young man goes to prison, he will leave a child or two out here without a father, and these bus trips maintain that contact between the incarcerated and their children,” he said.

Jackson said Cornerstone, a civic justice initiative of Catholic Charities, also gets considerable support from the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office and Second Zion, but Nola to Angola has emerged as a strong partnership.

Gillies said many of the riders came to the event through their involvement in civic justice and prison reform initiatives.

“We actually have so much interest this year that we had to turn down riders,” she said.

The ride’s starting point serves a symbolic purpose, as well.

Gillies said Orleans Parish Prison has many inmates who were arrested on nonviolent offenses but who have to remain in jail because they cannot afford to post bond while they await trail. As the state’s high incarceration rate takes its toll on inmates’ lives and their communities, she said, the downward spiral that often begins at the entry level of the prison system can end with offenses that lead to life sentences at Angola.

“We really want to highlight the connection,” she said.

Gillies said people interested in donating to the cause can do so through the group’s website, nolatoangola.org, because the ride is essentially an event to draw attention to the year-round bus rides program.

She said the bike riders pay a registration fee and supply their own food, so all of the money donated goes to the cause.

Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.