Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Prisoners' Tour de France

Lance Armstrong tweeted a link to this article on Yahoo News today. I'm impressed for many reasons. First, this is such an undertaking. We've had prisoner ball games and rodeos, which I imagine take a lot of work. But a nation-wide cycling tour? I can't imagine the logistics and security requirements. But here's what really gets me, that there is someone who sees these prisoners as worth all that work. I mean, they could offer all kinds of education programs or internet access or activity time in the yard (forgive my total movie-educated terminology) and still consider themselves rehabilitation minded. Someone saw these people as more than just prisoners who could be un-screwed-up, but as passionate human beings with hearts caged tighter than any cell. What's more, they convinced hundreds to join them, to ride with these prisoners.

My grandfather tells me of a forward-thinking Arkansas prison that used inmates as guards, even armed them. The warden understood he was jailer to more than criminals; they were men, and could therefore, with wisdom and care, be treated like men, could be trusted. The prison was a success. It returned rather than radicalized citizens and it was cheap. Much like Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's programs.

Cycling has been a vehicle for my own self discovery. I've used it to try to define who I want to be, to refine and clarify my character. Why couldn't prisoners share this same benefit? Why should we focus so heavily on the punitive element of detention that we risk truly succeeding with rehabilitation?

NANTES, France (Reuters) – Close to 200 prisoners will cycle around France next month, watched by scores of guards on bicycles, in the first penal version of the Tour de France, authorities said Monday.

The 196 prisoners will cycle in a pack and breakaway sprints will not be allowed. They will be accompanied by 124 guards and prison sports instructors. There will be no ranking, the idea being to foster values like teamwork and effort.

"It's a kind of escape for us, a chance to break away from the daily reality of prison," said Daniel, a 48-year-old prisoner in the western city of Nantes, at the official launch of the event. His last name was not given.

"If we behave well, we might be able to get released earlier, on probation," he told reporters.

The prisoners' Tour de France will take them 2,300 km (1,400 miles) around the country, starting in the northern city of Lille on June 4 and stopping in 17 towns, each of which has a prison. However, participants will sleep in hotels.

The finish line will be in Paris, following Tour de France tradition.

"This project aims to help these men reintegrate into society by fostering values like effort, teamwork and self-esteem," said Sylvie Marion of the prison authorities.

"We want to show them that with some training, you can achieve your goals and start a new life," she said.

(Reporting by Guillaume Frouin; writing by Estelle Shirbon; editing by Andrew Roche)