Building bikes in jail

Earlier this year PET’s Nina Champion completed a cycle race in memory of her father, with whom she had completed the same ride a year previously. In testament to her dad, who would fix up bikes for local children, she was raising money for the Margaret Carey Foundation (MCF), which runs bike recycling workshops in a number of prisons.

MCF works by salvaging old bikes and wheelchairs from landfill, covering 600 miles a week to deliver them to its prison-based workshops. Each bike is stripped, cleaned and refurbished with new parts, and refurbished by prisoners, under the guidance of qualified instructors and two peer mentors. The charity works in 11 prisons across the country, as well as Ashworth secure hospital, an approved premises in Manchester and two Bradford communities. MCF donates around 75% of reconditioned bikes and all wheelchairs to partners at home and abroad, while the rest are sold affordably at its community centre Shipley, West Yorkshire.

Trainees who go through MCF’s in-house scheme are awarded certificates. Then, if they want to, they can move on to nationally recognised qualifications. The workshop can also be a way to introduce literacy and numeracy tuition, as trainees practice basic maths, reading and note-taking as part of their work. 44% of MCF trainees left school aged 14 or 15, with over half saying they had no qualifications at all.

MSF shares the bikes' journeys with prisoners, show them videos or bring partners in to explain exactly how their refurbished bikes are being used, for example, helping a farmer in Ghana finally make a decent living from selling cashews, or being used to encourage formal learning in at-risk children in Cumbria.

Trainees tell MCF this work helps develop their self-worth and their belief in community. Like Barry, who trained in HMPs Liverpool and Kirkam. “I was a broken man”, says Barry, “but I am helping others and I’m giving back to the community. I now have the [bike repair qualification] Velotech Bronze and am going for Gold. Plus, my instructor says a local bike shop will give me some work experience. I am now looking forward to a career I could once only have dreamed of.”

MCF Director David Brown says the bike workshops particularly the type of person who benefits from hands-on learning. Most trainees volunteer for MCF, but when the prison refers an individual, it is usually because he is considered disruptive. Like John, at HMP Lindholme. John had not engaged with other initiatives in prison, had become depressed and had recently started to self-harm. The workshop proved the right environment for him to start making his prison time work for him.

A quarter of reconditioned bikes go for sale affordably at the MCF community project in Yorkshire. MCF is committed to tackling the stigma of a prison sentence at a community level, and Brown says it has "overwhelmed" with the positive public response. In December, they were able to offer enthusiastic bike mechanic John Hyde a job: John has been involved in the criminal justice system and is a recovering addict, this is his first steady job in over 20 years.

MSF is growing its sustainability but is aware of the challenges ahead. The charity is currently looking for Trustees with accountancy and/or retail expertise, building their community and corporate networks.

MSF celebrates its six-year anniversary this month. To donate, click here.