XO Bikes: Inside the charity fighting against rising reoffending rates in Britain’s prisons

Exclusive: XO Bikes trains recently released ex-offenders to repair bicycles in a bid to offer qualifications and employment to those at a heightened risk of reoffending. The Independent visited its flagship store and spoke with employees to understand more about the charity fighting against the rise of Britain’s prison population

Tom Watling
Sunday 21 April 2024 16:10 BST
Ed was XO Bikes' third employee

Chris* had made a name for himself at HMP Brixton drawing portraits for other prisoners when he was approached by a man he had never seen before.

The talented artist had spent three and half years in HMP Wormwood Scrubs and then Brixton for drug dealing and possession of a knife. A prolific drawer when he was young, he stopped at 16 when he fell in with the wrong crowd. At Scrubs, he had decided to pick it back up again, drawing cars and cellmates to pass the time.

Within months of moving to Brixton, where he would see out his sentence, word had got out. Dozens of other prisoners wanted him to draw their families, so they could hang it up on their wall. He was charging four boxes of vapes for each portrait.

Chris works on custom frame in the workshop above XO Bikes’ Lewisham flagship store (Tom Watling )

That was when Stef Jones, founder of XO Bikes and its umbrella charity Onwards & Upwards, approached him.

XO Bikes – “XO” stands for ex-offender – was offering a six-week training programme to those newly out of prison. After the course, Chris could be hired as a mechanic for XO Bikes, known as a “fixer”, or hired straight into a cycling company such as Decathlon.

Mr Jones, the founder of an advertising agency before leaving his job to set up XO Bikes, had heard about Chris and needed someone with his artistic talents.

A year after that exchange, The Independent spoke with Chris at XO Bikes’ flagship store in Lewisham. He works there two days a week, customising bikes.

He says the job has kept him busy and out of trouble. More importantly, it’s given him purpose, when so many others leaving prison have been left without hope.

Chris says roughly 100 bikes were dropped off at the warehouse next to the XO Bikes store the week The Independent visited (Tom Watling )

More than a quarter of all prisoners in the UK reoffend after they are released, according to latest figures from the Ministry of Justice. That has risen steadily each year since the pandemic at an annual cost of £18bn to the taxpayer. Prisons are at full capacity and it costs more to keep someone behind bars for a year than it would to send them to Eton.

It is high time, Mr Jones says, to fix this problem.

The mantra of XO Bikes is to help the ex-offender and their employer realise their potential.

“XO Bikes is about proving to the guys that they can work; proving to the industry that they can hire these guys; and proving to society that these guys have talent and value,” says Mr Jones.

The system is simple. Charities that greet ex-offenders straight out of prison refer them to XO Bikes, who train them as mechanics. They can then either be employed by XO Bikes, apply for jobs elsewhere or simply take the qualification and seek other employment. Ex-offenders like Chris who met Mr Jones while he was still in Brixton can self-refer, after which they go through vetting.

Since its founding in February 2022, XO Bikes has trained 35 ex-offenders and currently employs eight of them permanently, including Chris.

Stef Jones founded XO Bikes, and its parent charity Onwards & Upwards, after visiting HMP Brixton, where he says the ‘penny dropped’ (Tom Watling )

While it is a young company, it is one with big ambitions. They have recently opened a second shop in Wandsworth to complement its flagship in Lewisham. And they are now conducting a two-week training course inside two London prisons, which allows future “fixers” to get a headstart while they are still imprisoned before being picked up by XO Bikes after their release. Mr Jones says he is also working on several prospective ventures alongside XO Bikes.

Those that work permanently for XO Bikes are all given a unique tag, which is inscribed on the bikes they fix, alongside a number corresponding to how many they have mended. The third employee, Ed*, for example, uses the tag XO3. On the fourth bike he fixed, the tag X03-004 is written across the top of its frame.

All the bikes they fix are second-hand, donated by police stations in London, Cambridge and Peterborough, many of which are stolen and unclaimed, and by Network Rail and through public donations.

The bikes are then sent to a warehouse to be stripped and the frame, coloured in either black or orange, is sent back to the “fixers” to be remade.

Ed working on a wheel for XO Bikes – each ‘fixer’ inscribes their own tag on each bike they work on (Josh Bullock / Vimeo )

“You’ve got the guy’s story, and the bike’s story,” says Mr Jones. “It’s a guy with a past and a bike with a past, both getting a future through this. That’s why the bikes are not just recycled, they are rebadged.”

Ed was just 17 when he was imprisoned, first in High Down then in Feltham, one of the most violent prisons in the UK. He was released when he was 31.

“I didn’t really think very far ahead back then,” he says, “Just about getting the day done.”

Ed started his training with XO Bikes in June 2022, having been introduced to Mr Jones by the probation service, Bounce Back. He said he thought Mr Jones was a police officer the first time he met him. “I don’t want to say he seemed too good to be true, but he is,” Ed says.

Ed and colleague Tray, XO Bikes’ first ‘fixer’, operate out of a workshop adjacent to the store (Tom Watling )

“If someone offers me the chance to get qualified, I’ll do it,” he says. “This was just another opportunity.”

Nearly two years into his employment, he is now spending a day each week doing the finances for the company, having completed some qualifications in prison. Senior employees hope he will eventually become finance manager. He is set to be sponsored to take further accountancy qualifications.

Despite rates of reoffending beginning to spike in the year he left, and notwithstanding the serious nature of Ed’s conviction, he is now on course to become a fully qualified accountant.

Asked if he was happy to be given a second chance, he said: “I don’t look at it as starting again, more just resuming my life before I was arrested.”

The flagship XO Bikes store is found in Lewisham Shopping Centre (Tom Watling )

Describing his first visit to HMP Brixton, where he volunteered for the chaplaincy, Mr Jones said he realised quickly that “these guys are just the same as me”.

“With a bit less luck, or if I didn’t look like this, I could have ended up in prison,” he says. “We have all done things in our lives that we probably shouldn’t have done. These were just people who hadn’t had the start that I had had in life.”

Denying them the opportunity to resume their lives after prison, he adds, is a “diabolical waste of human life and potential”.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in