Most of the inmates in Lansing Correctional Facility’s bike program shy away from fixing up the frilly girly bikes, but William King gravitates toward them.
“I have a daughter … so, I kind of like the idea of giving it to someone else’s kids,” King said.
Last week, King was using black paint to cover up deep scratch marks that marred a bright pink bicycle. That bike, like the others in the program, had been donated by someone who no longer needed it. And it will end up with a little girl who does.
“My biggest fear is that they will give a bike to a boy and girl, and they will cry and say that it is ugly,” King said.
Since 1999, the bike program has donated more than 4,700 bikes to communities surrounding the prison. They go to refugees in Kansas City who have no other means of transportation, to low-income parents who give the bikes as Christmas presents and to recently released inmates who need a way to get to appointments with their parole officer.
The program started in 1999 with 25 bikes given away. In 2011, more than 500 bikes were distributed.
In Lawrence, Kansas University donates bikes that have been left behind at student dormitories. Clients with developmental disabilities at Cottonwood Inc. use them for exercise. And each spring the Lawrence Lions Club gives away 50 bikes to children whose parents can’t afford to buy them one.
“Someone might think … every kid has a bike. But that is not really true at all. There are a lot of kids out there that are ecstatic to get a bike. They don’t care if it is a new bike or not,” said Brian Edie, who organizes the bike giveaway through the Lions Club.
At Lansing, the bike program is housed in the correctional facility’s minimal security East Unit, which sits on a hill away from the maximum and medium security facilities. Inmates live in barrack-style dormitories that once held the state’s female felons.
The program’s coordinator, Tracy Ashton, has crammed bikes, more than 1,000 of them, into any space she can find. They are underneath porches, in closets and basement corners. The bikes come in all shapes and sizes. There are high-end mountain bikes, brand-name road bikes and old-school cruisers.
One inmate airbrushed skulls onto a Mongoose bike, which will be raffled to raise money for the program. And Ashton is still trying to figure out what to do with a classic Schwinn Sting-Ray.
The bike shop is in the basement of one of the residence halls. It looks a lot like a regular bike shop with tools hanging on the wall, bike parts arrayed across tables and piles of tire rims.
Among the inmates who have been there the longest is Tony Fenoglio. Within 20 minutes, Fenoglio can strip a bike of all its parts and then take the rest of the day to put it back together. Using a toothbrush and solvent, he scrubs clean the brackets and bolts. He polishes the frame with steel wool.
“It looks bad now,” Fenoglio said. “But by the time I take my brush and get it all cleaned up, it will shine like it has been rechromed.”
Fenoglio, who was serving a sentence for drug and assault convictions, first worked at the bike shop in 2005. The job ended when he was released. He returned eight months ago when he came back to prison on a parole violation for another drug conviction.
“If you don’t have a minimum wage job, it’s the best job up here on the hill,” said Fenoglio, who worked construction on the street.
The inmates earn between $12 and $21 a month for working in the bike shop. It employs six inmates. Right now the shop is down two men.
Since the men are in a small space and not supervised all day, Ashton said she needs a group that will work together well. She often hires inmates that Fenoglio recommends.
“Tony’s been here so long his word is good with me,” Ashton said.
Not every inmate has the mechanical mind or work ethic to be in the program. If they don’t, Ashton will find an inmate who does.
The program isn’t funded by the state and relies on donations that mainly come from American Legion Post 23 in Leavenworth.
Dave Thomas, the Legion’s department commander, began collecting money for the program several years ago. The funds mainly go toward paint, spare parts and tools. The American Legion also works to collect bicycles and make contact with the families who need them.
“It’s quite a program. It is really doing something for the community,” Thomas said.
People will bring in old bikes from as far away as Augusta. As for the new ones, the American Legion gives them away at Christmas time and has taken them to Fort Riley for soldiers in the wounded warriors program.
“I get thank-you cards all the time from people,” Thomas said.
The bike program helps the inmates, too. King, who is halfway through serving an 18-year sentence for rape, finds in some way that fixing bikes for other people’s children helps him connect with his own. He will be released from prison right after his daughter graduates from high school.
For Fenoglio, the program makes him feel good. “I just feel like I’m giving back to the community,” he said. “Like I’m doing something worthwhile with my time here.”