April 17 2013 11:10 AM

San Diego Reentry Roundtable working on bike program for ex-offenders

Michael Herron talks to an officer in North Park.
Photo by David Taube

Michael Herron, who's been busted in the past for peddling drugs, grins like a kid when he hears about a program that would give bikes to people who've been released from prison or jail. 

Herron, who's 31, was one of roughly 125 people, mostly San Diego State University students, arrested in a 2008 drug raid. He's been on probation for about a year, with two years remaining, and he's been trying to maintain a job without a car. That's meant taking the bus or asking others for rides, neither of which are ideal. 

"If I rode my bike, I would probably beat the bus," he said. 

Like many others, though, he doesn't own a bike. 

Several ex-cons and people who help former prisoners re-enter society tell CityBeat that not having reliable transportation makes it difficult to get to job interviews and workplaces.

Enter Steve Shia, who hatched the idea of providing bicycles to released prisoners as a way of helping reduce recidivism. Shia's been refining the idea as a member of a housing and transportation committee of the San Diego Reentry Roundtable, a group focused on criminal-justice issues and composed of law-enforcement personnel and community members.

Shia, a retired corrections counselor and teacher, has been working on securing and refurbishing used bicycles. A group of former inmates who had temporary work at the Center for Employment Opportunities in San Diego were surveyed last year, and most of them liked the idea, Shia said. The Rock Church in Point Loma has so far facilitated a handful of donations of used bikes and spare parts like frames, rims and wheels.

Keiara Auzenne, county director of the Center for Employment Opportunities, told CityBeat that the focus group indicated that bikes would be better than dealing with late trolleys and buses or relying on friends or family members who might not show up at all. While some surveyed expressed concern that riding a bike around the neighborhood might not seem cool, she said, the idea showed that ex-offenders can have more control over their schedule and a better ability to meet their own basic needs that others might take for granted, like getting to the grocery store and other mundane errands.

Just the cost of a bus pass is a steep price for some: A monthly pass can cost $72 or more. San Diego Second Chance, a back-to-work program that primarily assists ex-offenders, will purchase a bus pass for the first month as part of a comprehensive, long-term assistance program, said Executive Director Robert Coleman. The program is free, but enrollees must graduate a four-week course, Coleman said, and only half of them do.

Eddie Pree, a La Mesa resident who's involved in an alternative-probation program with the Center for Employment Opportunities, said the bike program makes sense for people who are fighting to get their lives back on track.

"Most of us can't afford no bike," Pree said.

For his part, Shia became involved in the Connecticut correctional system at a minimum-security prison as a job placement counselor. Back then, he said, he believed that if everyone in the corrections business did their job effectively, they could work themselves out of a job altogether. Now he jokes about how naïve he was. Though more jaded these days, he's still pursued the bike program, despite setbacks.

He came upon the idea when he was working at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, where he taught secondary education and helped young offenders prepare for college courses. Given his own daily commute, though, vehicle repairs sometimes forced him to use public transportation and ultimately pedal a bike from a border trolley station to the prison. On the job, he also noticed that inmates felt the need to have a car when they got out.

When he retired in 2009, he worked with Community Connection Resource Center to develop a bike program focused on ex-offenders. The agency's grant writer at the time, Anita Paredes, helped craft a proposal, but the agency's funding was cut, Shia recalled. Shia also took a cross-country bike ride in 2011, and so the plan was put on hold.

During a ski trip in Lake Tahoe, though, he drove to Reno to check out a bike shop that participated in a bike-share program and gathered information that he ended up using last April in a presentation to the Reentry Roundtable. 

The proposal is still largely in development, but the program could be implemented by the end of the summer, Shia said, adding that the effort could perhaps tie into a holiday program at Donovan prison that's given bikes to children of inmates.

The Reentry Roundtable's housing and transportation committee's been networking with bicycle organizations, and a member of the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition attended a committee meeting last month. The proposed program has been dubbed the PEDAL project: Providing Ex-Offenders Driving Alternatives for Life.

Shia said it's possible the Reentry Roundtable's efforts could set the groundwork for other advocacy agencies to branch out with their own bike programs. The group initially could provide bikes to partner organizations, which could maintain the bikes and oversee their own loan policies.

One of the main focuses in developing the program now is finding a hands-on instructor who might work with inmates at Donovan to repair the bikes. Other volunteers could also end up refurbishing bikes and providing safety training, Shia said, and a grant could later make the positions paid.

Shia said he began work in corrections only for a job, not a career, but he's kept questioning whether there are better ways to reduce the number of people who cycle out of prison and back in again.

"Sure, a person can go out on their own and refurbish bikes and give them out," he said. "How does the saying go? 'If you want to go fast, go by yourself. But if you want to go far, go together.'"

Write to davidt@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on Twitter at: @cityscrub


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