Jesse Caparratto had been out of prison for five days when he mounted the bike.
That morning, a crisp day in early November, he’d rolled out of bed and walked a mile from his home to the Parole and Probation Office in Waldorf, Maryland. Caparratto’s parole officer pointed to the bike — blue-and-gray, with thick tires — and said it was free, courtesy of a new program meant to ease travel for the recently incarcerated.
Caparratto, 22, hadn’t ridden in a long time. He was exhausted. He’d slept poorly the previous night, downing coffee and Red Bull to fuel the walk.
He shrugged. He slung a leg over. He started pedaling.
“Then, when I was on the main road and coming down the hill, I just felt it,” Caparratto said. “You could smell the fresh air, the trees, and you don’t got to worry about other people around you. ... I wasn’t in prison anymore.”
Caparratto is one of roughly 25 probationers and parolees in three Maryland counties to sign up for a two-year-old initiative that pairs individuals under criminal supervision with free bikes, donated by Father O’Neill Charities in Lutherville. The program is the brainchild of Kimberly Gregory, a field supervisor for the Maryland Division of Parole and Probation based in St. Mary’s County.
Gregory estimates there are close to 2,000 people serving parole or probation sentences — which typically stretch from six months to five years — in the tri-county area of St. Mary’s, Calvert and Charles. At least half of them struggle to find reliable transportation, Gregory said, given that most cannot afford cars.
That makes it difficult for them to attend mandatory meetings with parole officers, court-ordered treatments or jobs, Gregory said.
“I would meet with offenders, ask them, ‘What’s going on?’ ‘Why aren’t you getting here?’” Gregory said. “All day long, I heard one thing: ‘I don’t have transportation.’ ‘I don’t have transportation.’ ‘I don’t have transportation.’”
The problem is exacerbated for parolees and probationers in parts of southern Maryland, said Monica Bradley, a field supervisor in Calvert County. Portions of the region are rural and transit options are limited to “a small, tiny bus service,” she said.
“So, any way that we can assist our offenders getting to and from work is a bonus for everybody,” Bradley said. “For anyone with a desire to succeed and to maintain their employment — it’s a determining factor, that bike.”
Gregory first dreamed up a bike program back in 2009, she said, when one of her clients suddenly started showing up to their meetings on time. When she asked the reason for his punctuality, he showed her his bike — which, Gregory was shocked to see, lacked a seat.
She mulled the idea for years, stymied by logistical questions: Who would provide the bikes? Where would parole officers store bikes in search of owners? Would enough parolees want to pedal around?
Finally, in early 2017, Gregory decided she’d done enough worrying. Thinking back to the seat-less bike (“If he can make that work, we can do this!”), she picked up the phone and called her supervisor.
“I said, ‘This is ridiculous. People need transport. Why can’t we get some bikes?’” Gregory said. “I suggested something as simple as a Facebook post — just like, ‘Hey, drop off your gently used bikes and we’ll circulate them to people who really need them.’”
The Facebook idea did not pan out, but Gregory’s boss Ronnie Coleman-Snow was immediately on board, as was Bradley in Calvert County and Yolanda Hicks, a field supervisor in Charles County. All three counties began pursuing the idea.
Getting the bikes to parolees turned out to be a bit more complicated than they had anticipated. Under rules outlined by the state attorney general’s office, Gregory said, parole and probation offices cannot accept bikes donated by individuals. Any gifts must be channeled through a charity.
Undeterred, the group — now including Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services spokesman Mark Vernarelli — set out to find a willing charity. A few months later, Vernarelli stumbled across Father O’Neill Charities, a large, multipurpose nonprofit organization that just happens to run a bike-fixing program.
Through the Father O’Neill Charity Bike Program, launched in 2004, a team of roughly seven volunteers collects old or damaged bikes from individual households, the police or bike shops. The group then repairs the bikes “as best we can” and hands them out to “needy individuals,” said Carl Lenhoff, who oversees the initiative.
Father O’Neill Charities has delivered 36 bikes to parole and probation offices in the area, Lenhoff said, and is planning to send another shipment of 25 in the next few weeks. Maryland Correctional Enterprises has stepped in to help with ferrying bikes between the charity and the offices, Vernarelli said. Every inch of the process — from bike collection to repair to delivery — is undertaken by volunteers.
Among parolees, Gregory said, it’s been a success. Several who have received free bikes are having a much easier time holding jobs and keeping required appointments, according to Gregory and Bradley.
In early December, the bike program will receive a Governor’s Crime Prevention Award, an honor Gregory said she never expected.
But she’s not resting on her laurels. The next step is expanding the program. “We have more need than we have bikes,” Gregory said. It’s not that the program lacks donations, she explained. But there’s nowhere to put them.
Gregory and her staff moved a desk and a handful of file cabinets to make room for some bikes. Bradley has started keeping bikes in the conference room.
“It’s just becomes the norm,” Gregory said. “You just have bikes, during team meetings, in the corner.”
It’s well worth the inconvenience, both Gregory and Bradley said.
Brian Trimble would agree.
Trimble, 52, recently finished serving 12 years for murder. He signed up for a bike almost a year ago at the suggestion of his parole officer. Ever since, he has biked everywhere: to work at a barbershop, to go to the grocery store, and to relax and reminisce in friends’ living rooms.
Trimble said he bikes about 10 miles a day. It’s had an effect.
“I was 272 (pounds) when I came out of prison, and now I’m 212,” he said. “This bike has been so supportive for me. It was one of the most, best things that could ever be offered to me at the time.”
Caparratto, who served two years for sexual assault, is still getting to know his bike. He is less effusive.
It’s definitely proved useful so far, making it “much easier” to attend his weekly meetings at the parole office and to search for a job, he said. Biking between stores and interviews over the past few weeks, Caparratto has secured at least two promising leads: one at a thrift store, one at a 7-Eleven. Plus, when Caparratto’s mother asks him to buy milk from the corner store, it takes a lot less time to help her out.
And sometimes — if he’s riding fast, blasting music — he recalls that first ride, sleep-deprived, down the hill.
“The bike. It does,” he said. “It does make you feel free.”