US Prison programs bring holiday cheer with bike donations

Both sides of the law bring bikes to underprivileged kids

There are several programs in the US in which prison inmates are transformed into Santa’s helpers. Many of the programs have them building bikes for those children who might otherwise go without this holiday season. It’s a small way that the inmates pay their debt to the community, but one that can make a huge difference in the life of a child.

The Scott County Jail of Scott County, Iowa first implemented an inmate bicycles program, whereby inmates also learn about bicycle repair and restoration, five years ago. The program has become so successful that it isn’t limited just to the holidays. “We do this program all year, but our big push is around this time of the year,” Sgt. William Boyd of the Scott County Jail told BikeRadar. “We get a great response from the inmates as well as the people who receive the bikes.”

Boyd said that this program works with local non-profits and says that in addition to helping the inmates learn new skills, and give back at the holidays that it also keeps old bikes from local landfills. “Our bikes are rehabbed and many might otherwise be thrown away,” added Boyd, “so in addition to doing something good for kids in need it is a way of recycling too.”

While it will be a good holiday for the 20 children in Scott County, unfortunately budget cuts due to the ongoing bad economy has resulted in many long time programs across the country being cut this year. So those in Scott County’s correctional department say it’s no small Christmas miracle that this, and a few long-time other programs are enduring.

Prison bike programs endure outside of Iowa, as well

The Ceninela State Prison’s annual program is in very much in gear, where inmates enrolled in auto mechanics course take a break from tuning up engines for a few weeks, and instead spend the days leading up to the holidays refurbishing donated bicycles for local children.

Likewise, while a small program, the Missouri River Correctional Center has prisoners with very big hearts doing their part this year. A half a dozen inmates have been busy as elves for the Christmas PlayPen project, which provides at least 50 bicycles and 12 boxes of toys for needy children this holiday season.

And even the Grinch couldn’t stop the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office Christmas Bike Program, which is now seeing bike donations. This program was set up 20 years ago to provide refurbished bicycles, as well as new helmets, to underprivileged children in San Luis Obispo Country. “This program begin in 1989 as a way to give the inmates something to do and give back to the community,” Michelle Voisenat, Correctional Sergeant at the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office, told BikeRadar. “The program has been super successful. We give anywhere from about 300 to 400 [bicycles], and over the course of one year we gave away 700.”

She explains that the program only has a couple of inmates working as the holidays approach but that there are still about 250 youth bikes ready and another 200 adult bikes ready to ride. Every bike given to a child under 18 is accompanied with a helmet she says.

As with other programs recycling is also key, and the community’s support is what makes the program successful. “We also recycle many of the junk bikes that come to us,” said Voisenat. “We get donations from the public and businesses to purchase bike helmets and parts.”

For the inmates it is truly a way to correct past wrongs and to work for that second chance. Voisenat is working on designing a class for inmates so that they can actually get a basic bike maintenance certificate when they get out. This would give them something to a potential employer to show that they did something productive when they were in county jail. “I have talked to all the inmates who are placed into work at the Bike Program and they all seem to love what they are doing,” said Voisenat. “Where other areas of the Honor Farm we have problems with inmate behavior in the one and half years I have been supervisor we have not had one single problem with inmates assigned to this work detail. And, they work really hard getting the bikes together once they know what the program is about. Every one of them has had a better sense of connection to the kids in the community and feels like they are actually doing something productive while they are incarcerated.”

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