Every year, volunteers put on a fundraiser called NOLA to Angola, where cyclists bike from New Orleans to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola to raise money for causes related to mass incarceration in Louisiana. Last weekend, Verite News reporter Bobbi-Jeanne Misick tagged along on her Fuji bicycle. Now that she’s had a week to recover from cycling most of the 170 miles across Louisiana, she’s giving readers a glimpse into the ride.
“I met a man,” Beasy Taylor said. She chuckled. “It always starts with a man.”
Taylor was standing in front of a crowd of cyclists, telling a story of domestic abuse — a story that ended with her assailant dead and Taylor in prison. She served 23 years of a life sentence at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women before Gov. John Bel Edwards commuted her sentence in 2019. That made her eligible for parole, which she received in 2020.
Taylor recounted the night that sent her to prison. Her ex-boyfriend — who had been breaking into her apartment — cornered her in the kitchen, and Taylor grabbed a knife to scare him in response. When the man pinned her against a wall and lunged toward her, she lifted her arm, still holding the knife, to protect her face. His whole body fell toward her and into the knife, and when Taylor pulled her arm away and ran, he bled out and died. Taylor said that in the intensity of the moment, she didn’t even realize he’d been injured.
Now, Taylor travels the state and country to advocate for people like her, overwhelmingly women, who survived domestic abuse only to be incarcerated for self-defense.
On Saturday, Oct. 21, Taylor’s audience was a crowd of volunteers and tired cyclists who had just completed the second leg of their three-day long, 170-mile journey from New Orleans to the craft fair at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. The effort is known as NOLA to Angola, an annual bike ride that fundraises for organizations supporting people impacted by incarceration.
NOLA to Angola, which held its first ride in 2011, has traditionally raised money for the Cornerstone Builders Bus Project, which provides transportation from New Orleans and Shreveport to prisons throughout Louisiana. The ride highlights the long and costly trip to prison that families and individuals make to visit their loved ones behind bars.
Funds raised for this year’s ride will also go to Daughters Beyond Incarceration, which supports adolescent girls with incarcerated caretakers through afterschool programming; the Re-Entry Mediation Institute of Louisiana, which offers mediation between people recently released from prison and their loved ones; and RISE Collective, a group that offers re-entry support through “legal strategy, community resources, and artistic healing practices.”
Riders and organizers have raised more than $50,000 so far this year, and organizers will continue to accept donations until the end of November.
Last weekend was the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began in 2020 that volunteers embarked on the full three-day group ride; riders raised funds by logging their own miles in 2020 and 2021, and organizers planned an abbreviated one-day ride last year.
Organizers for the three-day ride must keep track of dozens of cyclists. They also manage volunteers who cook for the cyclists, drivers who pick them up from the road if their bicycles have mechanical problems or if they have injuries, and first-aid workers on hand for any injuries. Despite the effort, Katie Hunter-Lowrey, who has helped organize NOLA to Angola since its second year, said she was glad to have the three-day ride back.
“It just feels so worth it because it’s so reinvigorating to be in a space with three solid days of organizing for the kind of world that we want and being able to create that environment,” she said in an interview on Tuesday morning.
Hunter-Lowrey talked about being a survivor of violence herself and how it fuels her as a prison abolitionist.
“Part of what I want to see happen is not have more victims get made and I think that police and prisons — these are inherently violent places,” Hunter-Lowrey said. “What I want for myself or anyone else is safety, and we are not getting that through arrests or prosecutions.”
NOLA to Angola invites speakers, like Taylor, the domestic abuse survivor, to talk to riders about a wide range of topics at stops along the route. On the first day of the ride, Friday, Oct. 20, Lora Ann Chasson, principal chief of the United Houma Nation, spoke about her tribe as stewards of the land spread throughout Louisiana’s Cancer Alley. She spoke of the harms of being “water people,” who are losing a football field of coastal land every 100 minutes. Sheila Tahir, who manages bike tours focused on environmental justice through the region for the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, drew connections between environmental racism and mass incarceration.
“The most vulnerable in our society are the ones who are facing the brunt of environmental disaster and incarceration [because] of poverty,” Tahir told Verite News.
The ride itself, long stretches along the Mississippi River or on quiet highways, allows for bikers to reflect on the topics tackled along the ride — or as Rustle Pants, one of the ride’s guides, put it, “zoom out.”
Pants, for instance, was contemplating how the landscape of criminal justice in Louisiana might change with Republican Jeff Landry — a vocal supporter of the death penalty and critic of the state’s criminal justice reforms — winning the recent gubernatorial election. “I [was] thinking about how some things in our Louisiana government [are] shifting with Jeff Landry coming in,” Pants said.
The final set of speakers talked to riders about a group of people behind bars who often go unseen — those serving life sentences without parole. Louisiana has the highest rate of prisoners serving life without parole of any state in the country. Marcus Kondkar, chair of Loyola University’s sociology department and creator of the Visiting Room Project, which shares interviews with people serving life without parole, spoke about his experience in having people share their life stories with him. One of those people was Paul Mayho, who recently celebrated his one-year anniversary of being released from prison.
“He was the first person, outside of my family or friends, that asked me how I’m doing,” Mayho said of Kondkar.
Kondkar and Mayho rode alongside the other cyclists on the three-day ride. When Mayho spoke, he talked about the humanity that prison strips people of — even visitors, like Mayho’s wife, who often cried after experiencing invasive searches before she could enter the visitation area. He also spoke of the humanity within the people serving time alongside him.
“A lot of times we hear the word monster, criminal, misfit, undesirable. We hear these derogatory words when it comes to people who are incarcerated. But we don’t never take the time to find out what happened, how it happened, who did it and why,” Mayho said to the group. “These are human beings that made a mistake.”
The first two days of the ride covered 140 miles. By Sunday, the final 30-mile stretch, riders were sore. But they looked forward to entering the prison craft fair, where incarcerated men were selling handmade crafts — leather goods, jewelry paintings and even large pieces of furniture.
Riding through the fog on the long road that leads to the prison, riders were pulled over and re-routed by West Feliciana Sheriff’s Office deputies, who asked them to end the ride early after the office had received complaints from drivers on their way to the popular, biannual craft fair and prison rodeo. Riders arrived at their final destination, the New Zion Baptist Church, in support vehicles. They ate lunch and waited for a charter bus to take them the final one-mile stretch to the prison for the craft fair, when incarcerated men sold their handiworks.
Near the exit, Theodore “Ted” Genter, a metal worker selling bracelets and necklaces, opened up to a reporter about serving life without parole after being convicted of a murder he claimed he did not commit. Genter said he wasn’t always an innocent man, having helped hide a body in St. Tammany Parish in 2001, for which he also served time. He said he believed being sent to prison saved his life, but he doesn’t believe he deserves a life sentence without parole.
“I ask for forgiveness,” Genter said. “I plead for mercy.”
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