Nicholas Howe sits on a stool holding a bike wheel. On the wall next to him hangs an array of tools and hardware, including reflectors, handles and pedals.
“We’re going to put a gas tank on it and some bags to make it look like a bagger,” said Howe. For those not privy to motorcycle speak, a “bagger” is a motorcycle with luggage bags for long trips.
The gas tank isn’t real, either, but rather a wooden block designed to look like one.
Howe, an inmate at Stafford Creek Corrections Facility, is working on a bike that will be given away as part of the Bikes from Heaven program, a partnership between Stafford Creek and the Aberdeen Lions Club that gives bikes to low-income children.
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Stafford Creek receives used bikes from the Lions Club and then puts inmates to work in a well-appointed bike shop to repair them. Once they are spiffed up, the bikes are sent back to Lions members who give them out to families who couldn’t otherwise afford them.
Howe was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2008 after he stabbed someone four times. After serving time at the penitentiary at Walla Walla, Howe was transferred to Stafford Creek, where he will be until 2019.
“It keeps the time going,” Howe said of his work in the bike shop. But the work means something to him as well. Howe’s niece received a bike as part of the program last year.
Prisoners who want to join the program must interview for a position. Having shop skills is important, but an applicant’s behavior while locked up is key to deciding whether they get the job, which pays a maximum of 42 cents an hour, according to prison facility manager Chris Idso.
The bike shop is next to Stafford Creek’s sally port, a secured entry and exit point for prisoners and an area where escape is possible.
“It’s a select group of offenders allowed to work in this area,” Idso said.
Idso estimated that the prison refurbishes 20 to 30 bikes a month and can fix as many as 300 a year. Most of them are given out at Christmastime. Last year, a holiday giveaway was held at the Historic Seaport in Aberdeen on Dec. 20.
Every inmate who comes to Stafford Creek needs to spend at least 90 days working in the prison’s kitchen. Each offender is offered educational and job opportunities. The prison has a welding program, a home construction program, a state-of-the-art facility for building office furniture, and several other work opportunities. Aside from the mandatory stint in the kitchen, however, no one at the facility is forced to work.
The bike program “had meaning to it,” Idso said. “It’s something that’s purposeful and much more than mopping a floor or cleaning a toilet.”
Inmates in the shop also fix wheelchairs that are sent to disabled people in developing countries through an agreement with Joni and Friends, a faith-based organization that helps people with disabilities. Idso said inmates have worked on wheelchairs that have been shipped as far as Thailand and Guatemala.
Howe has always been interested in fixing bikes and says his experience in the shop has piqued his interest even more. When he gets out of prison, he said he wants to start his own bike shop.
“This job right here is probably the best job in the facility,” said Jeremiah Coffey, a tall, slender inmate from Tacoma.
Coffey has served 15 years and still has five to go. He was convicted of second-degree murder after he killed a man who he says he molested his girlfriend’s daughter.
Coffey helps with putting together the wheelchairs, but spends most of his time working on bikes. Coffey raced bikes before coming to prison and he says spending time in the shop helps him cope with being incarcerated.
“It helps relieve the stress of being locked up. There are a lot of programs that help people do that, but this does it for me. This is what I like to do,” Coffey said.