For the past six years, inmates at HMP Bristol in Horfield have been given the chance to learn new skills by Life Cycle UK. Now, the efforts of the Bristol-based charity have been rewarded.
Their Bike Back project, which offers up to eight offenders at a time the chance to learn bike maintenance and mechanical skills, has been awarded the Robin Corbett Award for Prisoner Rehabilitation 2017 – a prestigious award in the industry.
Life Cycle UK are based in a workshop in the shadow of HMP Bristol, Horfield. Inside, their spacious building houses bikes of many different states of repair, and the walls are hung with bike imagery, framed magazine articles and maintenance tools.
This is clearly the abode of some serious bike aficionados: everyone on the small staff team seems to have a passion for cycling, and they ensure that the bicycles maintenance they do is of the highest quality.
They rely on the public to donate old, unridable or unwanted bicycles, which the team then strip down, build up and then sell on. The refurbished bicycles are offered at affordable prices and are aimed primarily at people from lower incomes, who may otherwise not be able to find a decent bicycle. They sell around 320 per year, and the money raised is reinvested into the charity.
A team of volunteers help the staff in the workshop to fix up the bikes, and in the process can work towards a Level 1 City & Guilds qualification in cycle mechanics.
They also have a second workshop inside the high brick walls of the prison, Life Cycle Workshop Leader John Russell explains, where they work directly with the prisoners. “Inmates can access education and skills, or employment, so they opt in to do a course with us. They spend approximately 12 weeks learning the mechanical skills, and there are some key workers who we keep on to do tasks like bike checking and quality control. They become peer mentors for the others.”
John has worked on the project for around four years, and has seen the difference that it can make to the lives of the inmates. “Lots of them love coming into the workshop,” he says. “It takes away the feeling of being in prison, and it gives them a project to work on – something to strip down, build up and create from new. It can be cathartic.”
And, perhaps surprisingly, often the inmates enjoy knowing that the work they are doing will benefit others. “They like that it’s for a charity, and that through this work, they are giving something back,” John continues. “In a way, they are providing bikes for people like themselves.”
Through the Bike Back project, inmates also have the chance to gain their Level 1 City & Guilds qualification, and 75% of participants have completed it since the project began in 2010.
Part of the success of the project is about the sense of achievement gained from seeing a bike come in broken and unusable, and, after some hard graft, turned into something useful once again. “Often, it’s the first time they’ve had positive praise,” John says of the prisoners. “If they’ve not got good literacy or numeracy skills and haven’t ever engaged with the education system, this less formal education setting lets them shine.”
The overall aim of the project is to enable inmates to smoothly rejoin the community after leaving prison, perhaps to use their skills in a voluntary role with another organisation, or to get a job. But as much as this project is about bicycles, it’s also about people, and helping the men at HMP Bristol to reclaim their lives on the ‘outside’, as they go into the world as ex-prisoners.
Winning the award is a chance to tell everyone about the great work they are doing, and the staff team responsible for the prestigious win are collecting their award from the Houses of Parliament, in a ceremony they are clearly very excited about.
“We are so thrilled to have won the Robin Corbett Award: this is a huge endorsement for Bike Back,” said Poppy Brett, Chief Executive Officer of Life Cycle.
“The scheme is so successful because of the unique partnerships we have formed: with the community who donate their unwanted bikes, with the staff at HMP Bristol who have supported us from day one, and, crucially, with the prisoners who commit to refurbishing the broken bikes. Of course, the greatest thanks goes to Life Cycle UK’s dedicated staff and volunteers, whose commitment to delivering a really outstanding scheme enabled us to win this award.”