By McKenzie Lee
NOLA to Angola is an organization that was formed in 2011. A group of concerned community members from New Orleans, Louisiana bike from the city of New Orleans to Angola, the site of the largest maximum security prison in the United States. The bike ride lasts three days, and covers approximately 170 miles. This past summer, I decided to commit to the ride.
I was quite nervous for the ride. I have never been on a long trip with my bicycle, and I don’t identify as an athlete anymore. While the physical aspects of this trip concerned me, I felt like this ride itself could be an opportunity for me to challenge myself, both physically and mentally. And I believed in the purpose of the ride.
The goal of this bike ride to Angola is to raise awareness about mass incarceration in the United States. For those who do not know, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country, and New Orleans has the highest incarceration rate in the state. Most people who are put in prison are taken to institutions like Angola, hundred of miles away from their families, communities, and homes. My uncle spent some time incarcerated when I was younger, and I remember the long journey we took to go visit him, and how much he said those visits meant to him.
In addition to raising awareness about mass incarceration, we were tasked with fundraising. All of the money that is raised goes to an organization, the Cornerstone Bus Project. The Cornerstone Bus Project provides free, monthly bus services for families to be able to visit their loved ones. Visiting family and friends face to face is a way to bring some relief and a sense of connection to a time that can devastate families. In addition to providing relief and connection, visits have also been linked to reduce recidivism rates.
On the day of the ride, we all woke up early and met up at a house. I packed a bunch of water and snacks: nuts, bananas, rice cakes. I made sure to stock up on as much bicycle gear as possible, hoping that this would help make the 170 mile bike ride a little easier. I purchased special padded gloves for my hands, was wearing padded bike shorts, and wore my new, hand-printed NOLA to Angola t-shirt. The first part of the ride was easy: we biked down the street to City Hall where a member from the City Council, Jason Williams, and members for organizations seeking to reform our prisons came to speak.
We then set off. Approximately forty bike riders, males and females of all ages and backgrounds, biked to the levee on the Mississippi River. The bike ride itself was quite beautiful, and the weather was sunny and crisp. We stopped for a break and then biked to the Bonnet Carre Spillway. We found a few picnic tables and ate our pre-packed lunch, Pad Thai. At this point in the ride, I was feeling pretty good.
As we continued our bike ride, we ended up having to bike along major highways. The sun was beating down on our backs, and I remember trying to figure out how much longer I had to bike ride. As the sun started going down, we made it to the campsite. We quickly set up our tents, and then went inside the facility for a dinner and conversation on the history of Louisiana and the connection between slavery and the prison system. I remember walking to bed and being concerned that it would be too painful to lay down: my knees and thighs were in pain.
The next morning, we woke up early and biked through the Maurepas Swamp, through the city of Baton Rouge, and up to the Tunica Hills. It was in this second day, where I started biking with new people. I met one individual who is a social worker working with children who are in foster care, I spoke with another individual who was an elementary school teacher, and another individual who worked with City Council. This part of the journey- getting to meet and talk with other people on the bike ride- was one of the parts of the bike ride that I appreciated the most.
This year NOLA to Angola raised nearly $30,000 for the Cornerstone Bus Project. If you are interested in learning more about this group, or joining the bike ride next year, please visit: www.nolatoangola.org/blog/