Building bikes, changing lives
Cycling UK Assistant Head of Development (Scotland) Suzanne Forup, also works for Youth Scotland, where she has managed the Bike Club Scotland programme - a Cycling UK/Youth Scotland partnership - for the last four years. Bike Club Scotland works to engage with young people who can find it hard to get cycling, for example young people with disabilities or from minority ethnic communities, and young women and girls from disadvantaged communities. Recently, Suzanne’s been 'inside' to see how Bike Club can reach those that literally can’t get out and ride...
At first it feels like an airport; you need a passport and the nice man at the desk takes your photo then you go through a body scanner as your bag is looked at. It’s not until you reach the locked doors that it starts to feel like something else entirely. Polmont is Scotland's national holding facility for Young Offenders aged 16-21 years of age and holds around 600 young people serving terms of between six months to life.
The ‘Build Your Own Bike’ (BYOB) course in HM Young Offenders' Institution Polmont has been piloted over the last year by Youth Scotland, Polmont YOI, the Edinburgh Bike Station and Falkirk Council. The week long course brings young people from the community in Falkirk into Polmont to learn how to build a bike from a bare frame up. They are taught by the young people in Polmont, who have been selected from the prison population by the Bike Shed Instructor, Colin Geddes. The young people in Polmont act as ‘peer mentors’, using their skills as mechanics - they have all obtained, or are working towards a Velotech Gold qualification - as they learn the harder job of ‘how to teach’. If the young people in the community attend the final day, a Bikeability course, they are allowed to keep the bike that they have built. For most, this is the only bike they have ever owned.
In February, Bike Club Scotland was delighted to be able to part-fund a BYOB course in Polmont as part of its work in Falkirk, funded by Cycling Scotland. It gave me the opportunity to see how cycling can be transformational, even when no-one even gets to ride very far.
Now I am starting to think that I have stuff to offer other young people going through the same as me.” - young person on the BYOB course
Inside the Bike Shed at Polmont, the quiet rapport between young people was evident as they worked together on their bikes, and the sense of achievement shone from everyone during the test ride round the back of the YOI yard. The course provides an opportunity for everyone involved to develop new skills, increase their confidence and learn a little about what other people’s lives are like.
Many of the young people coming into Polmont to build bikes had similar backgrounds to those resident in Polmont: experience of parental bereavement, time in care, exclusion from school and contact with the criminal justice system. John Nicolson, the Youth Scotland worker coordinating the course, ensures there is time and opportunity for everyone to reflect on the course and the impact it has had.
Whilst one of the groups of young people was able to walk freely out of the prison at the end of the day, it was clear that their experience would stay with them:
I never want to go into jail as a prisoner. Maybe I was heading there in the past but definitely not now. What a waste of life.”
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I didn’t expect the young people in Polmont to look so much like children, or that the prison officers would be so supportive of the young people in their care. Having learnt a little about what brought the young people into the YOl and what they face when they leave, I’m now working with colleagues at Youth Scotland and Polmont to develop BYOB into something that not only builds bikes on the inside, but can build lives on the outside.