To the cheers of supporters steps away from the New Orleans jail on Oct. 19, 60 bicyclists began a three-day ride to Louisiana State Penitentiary, port of call for an annual trek to benefit a program to keep families connected to their incarcerated loved ones.
Now in its eighth year, NOLA to Angola participants help raise money to support Cornerstone Builders’ bus program, which transports Orleans and Jefferson parish residents to incarcerated family members inside five state prisons, at no cost.
The three-day, 170-mile bike ride offers riders a chance to “really internalize the distance” not only separating families and their loved ones at Angola but to also underscore how far removed incarcerated people are from the communities they left, and how the criminal justice system impacts low-income people of color and their families, says NOLA to Angola organizer Katie Hunter-Lowrey.
“If someone in Louisiana gets a life sentence, that doesn’t mean they suddenly don’t have parents and siblings and friends and children,” she says. “It’s important for families to maintain that link even if they don’t come home. That’s still family. That’s still community.”
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The route not only highlights the state’s lack of bike infrastructure but also underlines that there’s only one way to get from New Orleans to Angola, where there’s one way in and one way out, for some; the average sentence at the prison is 90 years.
“You can really feel that after three days on a bike and going that last stretch of miles,” Hunter-Lowrey says.
The ride offers a chance to see up close the lingering histories of slavery, Jim Crow and racism throughout the state, from the sites of slave rebellions to refineries in the shadow of the largest prison maximum security prison in the U.S. There also are guest speakers along the ride, speaking to the impacts of mass incarceration and its history in Louisiana.
Cornerstone director Leo Jackson organized the first bus ride in 2007. It makes monthly trips on charter buses, seating up to 60 people (they’re always full), with additional trips leading up to November and December holidays; NOLA to Angola riders’ “sponsorships” defray the cost of each trip. Last year the group raised $50,000, enough to cover roughly 50 rides. Cornerstone also is now operating a bus program in Shreveport and is planning to open a hub in Lafayette.
Roughly 8 percent of the state’s prison population is from the New Orleans area, according to the state’s Department of Corrections. That distance from home adds up. Family visits account for hundreds of round-trip miles, in addition to the costs of taking time off work, paying for gas, and organizing family members, all of which can add up to a significant cost burden to families.
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Black men account for more than 68 percent of the state’s prison population; the average age at the point of their convictions is 33 years old. A 2016 report from the Annie E. Kasey Foundation found that family incomes can drop by roughly 22 percent when fathers are incarcerated, and without a parent at home, the financial (and emotional) burden falls on families, communities and government services to care for the children of incarcerated parents.
“This loss of income creates ripples that grow into waves,” the report says. It found that as many as 65 percent of families with a member in prison or jail “could not meet basic needs,” often perpetuating a cycle of poverty and incarceration: “Thousands of dollars in court-related fines and fees, along with costly visits to maintain contact, landed nearly one-third in debt.”
There also is a trend among jails to eliminate in-person visits all together, replacing them with off-site video calls. Hunter-Lowrey says incarcerated people are increasingly disconnected from their communities — physically by distance, financially with the costs of round-trip travel and phone and video calls — while the outside is more connected than ever via social media and the internet. “It’s obvious a whole section of the population is being left behind,” she says.
Meanwhile, Louisiana’s recent criminal justice reforms aim to reduce the state’s prison population and ease re-entry for some offenders. New Orleans magistrate judges also are beginning to weigh the costs of cash bail for low-level offenders, and the New Orleans City Council voted to reduce barriers for formerly incarcerated people seeking jobs with the city and city contractors.
“We as a state and a country are finally starting to realize the road bumps to re-entry — you can’t just release someone and say, ‘Here’s a dollar for a bus ticket and the clothes you came in with,’” Hunter-Lowrey says. “In addition to having a place to stay … and work afterwards, having a group of people who you stayed in contact with, and seen and hugged, creates a pretty obvious support structure when someone gets out. … We are all sharing the city streets. People should be supported when they get out and come home.”
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