Adinas Perkins is 56 and has a little arthritis in her hips. That didn’t stop her from saddling up last year for the annual NOLA to Angola solidarity bike ride, 165 miles from New Orleans, Louisiana, to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola.
Perkins is a New Orleans native who describes her previous experience with long-distance cycling as “zero to zero.” The ride raises funds to support the Cornerstone Bus Service, which provides buses to transport people to see their family members and loved ones in Louisiana penitentiaries free of charge. Last year, the ride raised $54,000 to support the bus service. That is a huge jump from the roughly $4,000 the ride garnered with its first outing in 2011.
The Cornerstone Bus Service has expanded substantially since its inception. Minister Leo Jackson, of the Second Zion Baptist Church in New Orleans, coordinates the initiative. He started the program in 2007 as part of Catholic Charities’ work with people involved with the criminal justice system. A year later, Jackson says Catholic Charities decided to step back from the project due to concern about the potential liability issues involved with the bus trips, so he took it on as a separate project. Now, 12 years later and with the support of the solidarity bike ride, the bus service is offering 19 rides a year from the New Orleans area to five different penitentiaries as well as six trips from Shreveport to the state facility at Angola.
Perkins found out about the solidarity bike ride last year through her volunteer work with Voice of the Experienced, VOTE. In the mid-1990s, Perkins was struggling with a drug addiction, and that landed her for a few short stints in prison.
“My maximum amount of time was 45 days at one time,” Perkins says. “I had a support system. I had money on the books for the commissary. I had visitors. This time I was in there, I cried like hell.”
At the time, Perkins was 32. She says she was told that if she pled guilty, she would get a reduced sentence but if she went to trial, she could face 20 years in prison. “I didn’t know what to do or say,” Perkins says. “I pled guilty, and I had two little girls, and 20 years later they would have been 33 and 30.”
Perkins says that she knows many people who are or have been incarcerated, but it wasn’t until she began to volunteer with VOTE that she began to learn about racial inequalities in the criminal justice system and “about going to the state legislature and getting laws changed.”
The first solidarity ride in 2011 was “scrappy,” says Katie Hunter-Lowrey, one of the organizers. A group of young, mostly white activists met Rev. Jackson and decided to organize the ride to support his Cornerstone Bus Service efforts. The ride spans three days, and riders camp overnight on the route to the state penitentiary. “The project really highlights the distance between New Orleans and Angola,” Hunter-Lowrey says. It illustrates in a deeply physical way how far inmates are from their loved ones.
As of June this year, 31,756 adults were incarcerated in Louisiana. Fifteen percent of that population comes from Orleans Parish, which is almost entirely made up of the city of New Orleans.
Albertine Jackson, 77, is one of the people who rides the Cornerstone bus. Jackson is not related to Rev. Leo Jackson. She and her sister used to travel to Angola to see their brother who was sent there in 1997, but her sister passed away in 2015.
“It takes the tension off you,” Jackson says of riding the bus, who described the ride as a nice opportunity to connect with others going to visit loved ones in the prison.
Brenda Bradley, 56, began riding the Cornerstone bus last year to see her son at Raymond Laborde Correctional Center. She brings her two grandchildren with her, and they share a meal and play games like Uno and chess with their father once they get in to see him. Bradley says she also prefers taking the bus to driving on her own. “We mingle with the other people, and we become like one close-knit family,” she says.
Rev. Jackson knows firsthand how important these visits are. He spent 32 years in jail on a drug possession charge because Louisiana adopted the Rockefeller drug laws, which mandated harsh sentences, even for first-time offenders. The bus service, he says, is his way to “do some good in the future,” converting his own suffering into something positive for others.
Jackson compares the relationship between the NOLA to Angola organizers and the bus service to a marriage. “In the relationship we’ve become so supportive of one another. They’ve been very, very supportive of the bus trip. They’ve helped me organize this fundraising system that enables me to have a sustained bus program. Before I had to raise money on a random basis, the best way I could from whatever I could, but they have developed a system now that sustains the trip and opened the opportunity for expansion.”
Initially, most of the organizers and riders were young, white folks who could take time off to do the ride and tap into social networks for donations, among other things. Now, to make the ride more accessible to a diverse group of people, NOLA to Angola offers to waive the registration fee and the fundraising requirement. The collective has also offered a “scholarship” — a stipend — to riders who would be negatively affected by losing wages in order to do the ride. These measures aim to ensure that people who have been personally affected by the criminal justice system can ride if they want to.
The cyclists traverse 165 miles over the course of three days, and the collective uses rest stops to talk about issues like environmental justice and racism in the criminal justice system. For example, last year an archivist with the Houma Nation participated in the ride. She described what the area around Baton Rouge and Angola looked like when the Houma people lived there. At the first overnight location, riders also hear from a panel of speakers who have been directly affected by the criminal justice system. Before the ride, organizers ask if any of the riders who have been impacted would be open to sharing their stories in this forum.
Curt Alonzo speaks to riders at the Nola to Angola Send Off on the steps of NOPD HQ in New Orleans. Alonzo was sentenced to juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) at the age of 17. He was released in 2017 after reforms were made to juvenile sentencing. (Courtesy NOLA to Angola)
“It’s one thing for people to read a news story for someone. It’s another thing to fit 60 cyclists in a room … to have someone talk about their experience on parole, about not being able to see their children because they were incarcerated. It makes a huge difference in terms of putting a face with the story,” Hunter-Lowrey says.
This year, NOLA to Angola also held its second Spring Brake social ride. That ride extends for 10 miles with periodic rest stops where partner organizations talk about their work. This format is similar to the rest stops on the NOLA to Angola ride, where riders learn about environmental and racial justice issues in the location where they have paused. For Rev. Jackson, the NOLA to Angola ride could reach beyond Louisiana. “Our goal is to help others in other jurisdictions to develop a model like ours that is sustainable,” he says.
NOLA to Angola organizers aim to make the ride sustainable for participants, too. For Perkins, last year that meant being able to catch a ride with support vehicles at times. “I think that out of the whole 170-mile trip, I may have rode 50-60 miles. I think that was good for a 50-year-old first time trekker,” she told Next City. As this year’s ride approaches in late October, Perkins says she is excited and has her own goals. “I’m determined to make the whole trip on the bike or as much as possible. Definitely more than 50 miles,” she says.
EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story misspelled Katie Hunter-Lowrey’s name.
Zoe Sullivan is a multimedia journalist and visual artist with experience on the U.S. Gulf Coast, Argentina, Brazil, and Kenya. Her radio work has appeared on outlets such as BBC, Marketplace, Radio France International, Free Speech Radio News and DW. Her writing has appeared on outlets such as The Guardian, Al Jazeera America and The Crisis.