By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald Commentary
From Tulane and Broad, it’s about 170 miles by bike to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, and that’s definitely not measuring by how the crow flies.
For the last seven years in October, a disparate group of cyclists has ridden the back roads of south and central Louisiana, hugging the curves of the Mississippi River at times, cutting over to Airline Highway when the mighty river starts looping too crazily upon itself – making north and south anyone’s guess – then heading north into the Tunica Hills of West Feliciana Parish and finally to the razor wire of the largest maximum-security prison in America.
It’s a three-day trip – 70 miles to Gonzales, 70 miles to the West Feliciana Sports Park and 30 miles to the gates of Angola – and there’s plenty to think about along the way besides sore calves and thighs and flat tires.
“For me, it was the first long bike ride I had ever done,” said Jesse Chanin, who has ridden since 2012. “I mean, I had ridden through town because I commute to work on my bike, but I had never been on a ride that was more than 20 miles. And that’s true of a lot of people. Some people are sort of professional cyclists, but some folks get involved because they care about the issues.”
The “issues” are something of a passion for Leo Jackson, who after spending 34 years at Angola joined the Cornerstone Builders program of Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans, which every year works with 30 inmates who have been released from prison, offers them a job and a stipend through AmeriCorps for six months and helps them transition into full employment, find permanent housing and, perhaps even more importantly, reconnect with their families.
Jackson earned his theology degree during his time at Angola through a satellite program sponsored by the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and he became a chaplain to his fellow inmates.
One of the things that hit him between the eyes was that once the cell doors locked behind the inmate, his family might as well be living in another galaxy. Even though every state prison has limited hours for relatives to make visits, for families with little disposable income, it was almost impossible for them to afford the expense of making such a long haul.
Through a grant from a national Catholic foundation a few years after Katrina, Cornerstone Builders was able to provide occasional free bus transportation so that family members could visit their relatives in prison. Former Jefferson Parish Newell Normand even offered money to pay for a bus visit.
But as the funding for the bus trips began to dry up, the group of cyclists heard about the plight and rolled into action to fund future trips. They called their fundraising group “NOLA to Angola,” and last year, 65 cyclists left from the steps of Orleans Parish Criminal Courthouse at Tulane and Broad and made the three-day trek to Angola, raising more than $60,000 in pledges and sponsorships.
Using that charitable windfall, Jackson now coordinates the free bus program through his Second Zion Baptist Church, and the money raised by NOLA to Angola is enough to provide for 17 bus trips annually for family members to Angola, Dixon Correctional Institute in Jackson, B.B. Rayburn Correctional Center in Angie, the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in St. Gabriel and other prisons. The buses are always full, with seats for 55 people.
Jackson is looking to expand the free bus program to serve families living in Shreveport and Lake Charles.
“It’s all about family reunification,” Jackson said. “It provides a means of regular visits for many family members who cannot afford to make that journey on a regular basis. We’re talking about kids and elderly people who can’t drive. We’re talking an average of 500 miles for a roundtrip. You can see what the cost of gas would be, and that’s not counting food and other costs. This also provides an incentive for the incarcerated individual to have something to look forward to. Those who have taken advantage of it truly appreciate it.”
In addition to the monthly schedule, the buses also depart around the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays and on Mother’s Day.
“One mother told me it had been five years since she had seen her son,” Jackson said.
Chanin, 33, who taught high school in New York before coming to New Orleans, said she was motivated to get involved because many of her students either got caught up in the juvenile justice system or had family members who were imprisoned.
“I really wanted to get involved in anti-incarceration work and specifically in family connection work, thinking about the impact that incarceration has on young people,” she said. “This seemed like a natural project because the mission is so family-focused.”
A chance encounter
Will Bowling, a Rhode Island native who has lived in New Orleans since 2009 as an urban planner and attends Our Lady Star of the Sea and St. Joseph churches, hosts a group potluck meal in November so that riders can share their deeper reflections with Jackson. Bowling said he has been imbued with a sense of Catholic Social Teaching since his days at a Lasallian high school in Providence.
A week after Bowling, 33, completed the bike ride in 2015, he was parking at the airport for a trip out of town when he got on the shuttle bus, still sore from the trip.
“I offered up to the driver the fact that I had been on this ride – and I felt like I was kind of bragging about it, you know, ‘I did this ride and I’m sore’ – and the driver said, ‘Oh, that’s a really nice thing to do,’” Bowling said. “I asked him if he knew anybody in prison, and then he pulled over and put the van in park. He told me, ‘I was in Angola for 28 years, wrongly convicted, and you could look it up. I’m Reginald Adams.’ Sure enough, it was. Without much poking around, without much hunting, you get an idea of how deep incarceration goes here.”
Bowling said the most poignant moment of the trip to Angola was attending the craft fair and seeing the family members trading small talk and jokes – and then, ultimately, seeing the time run out on the visitation period.
“Those goodbyes and hugs felt so infinite,” Bowling said. “Each time, I imagine, that’s the case.”
Jackson said he is following a call God laid on his heart.
“As Christians, we want to make an impact – when I was hungry, you fed me; when I was naked, you clothed me; when I was in prison, you visited me,” Jackson said. “To see a service like this provide some immediate benefit is certainly rewarding. It means a great deal.”
For information on the Oct. 19-21 NOLA to Angola fundraiser, go to NOLAtoAngola.org.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org