Mother and child reunion
Prison can be an unforgiving place, especially for parents who are far away from their loved ones. A program in California lets moms and their kids be a family again.
This journey does have its roots in church, though. In 1999 Sister Suzanne Jabro of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Los Angeles asked other nuns to pool their own money to rent a couple of buses to take children to see their incarcerated moms on Mothers’ Day. Jabro, a veteran of 35 years in prison ministry, said she was moved by the inmates’ hunger for contact with their offspring. “Mothers want to touch their children. Children need to see and touch and talk to their parents. The bond between children and parents is sacred. The parents went to prison, the relationship didn’t,” she says.
For four years Jabro raised money and organized volunteers to run the “Get on the Bus” holiday visits. Convinced that the visits were a good rehabilitation incentive, in 2007 the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation put up a $400,000 grant to run the trips year round from various points in California. In its first year of operation, the new program, called Chowchilla Family Express, has taken more than 2,500 people on 41 trips.
“Our premise is what we call ‘accompaniment,’ based on the Latin American liberation theology model of accompanying people in struggle,” says Eric Debode, who administers the Family Express program. “Jesus is standing with people in trouble, and we take our cue from that.”
There isn’t any proselytizing or organized prayer on the charters, which are open to anyone cleared to visit a prisoner, regardless of their religious beliefs. But many of the visitors and inmates speak of the program as a “blessing.”
“I hope everybody’s got their IDs,” says trip leader Chris Geiger. “Nobody’s wearing blue denim. No green. Great. We’ve got a lot of veterans on the bus.”
Dartanyan is making the trip with his grandparents, Wardell and Gloria Christie, and his great-aunt, Joan Smith. He hasn’t seen his mother since the summer.
“It’s so expensive,” Smith says. “When we drive down, we leave at 5:30 in the morning. We try to visit at least three times a year.” They had to be up at 4 a.m. to catch the charter, but at least she and her sister, who both worked the day before, don’t have to drive.
Gloria looks pained when she thinks about what brought her family to this point. “Whoever would have thought this would happen to you? When this comes knocking at your door, if you’ve got a heart, you’ll let it in. She did the crime. We all do the time.” She and her husband have been taking care of Dartanyan while their daughter, 28, is serving a six-year sentence for felony assault. “I’m 60 now. I’m supposed to be thinking about retiring.”
The visit is as much for Gloria to see her daughter as it is for Dartanyan to see his mother. “That’s my child. That’s my baby. We’re like this,” she says holding two fingers together. She glances over and sees Dartanyan and Wardell slumped together in a snooze. “He’s been calling my husband ‘Dad’ all his life. That’s a bond they’ve got.”
It’s a sunny, almost hot day in this part of the state. Railroad tracks give way to orchards of fruit trees past their season and grape vines tacked to stakes. The two women’s prisons are separated by a tree-lined road. It’s about 10:25 a.m. when most of the 17 passengers get off at the second stop. It will take nearly an hour for visitors to be processed before they are reunited with their loved ones.
There are about 40 tables of visitors in a room that looks a lot like a high school gymnasium. A young white couple who rode down on the charter are visiting an inmate with a long gray braid. A youthful African American grandmother visits her inmate daughter and a grandbaby born four days earlier. The baby, so fresh it still looks damp, is decked out in an orange-striped onesie and a black cat skullcap.
The inmates are in blue scrubs or blue jeans and heavy brown leather shoes. Some of them are wearing festive eye makeup. There’s a lot of chatter and laughter in the room.
Aunts and grandmothers line up to purchase expensive plates of hamburgers, taquitos, and pizza from a catering service that comes in for visiting day. Once they have the plastic-covered platters, visitors have to stand in another line to microwave the barely edible food. Flavor is second to the chance to share a table like a family for a while.
Raisean Dorsey-Avila is a wiggly, funny 4-year-old. His great-aunt, Margo McClellan, brought him on the bus to see his mother, Stephanie Dorsey. Raisean has been living with the McClellans—whose own children are grown—since his mother started her sentence 18 months ago. It takes Raisean a while to warm up to her. Stephanie, 25, is patient.
“When you were a baby, you’d say ‘bye-bye water.’ You’d stand there and watch all the water go down the drain and then you’d cry.” Raisean looks incredulous as if he can’t imagine ever having been such a baby.
Raisean’s cousin has drawn “love mom” in a heart on his left bicep. A sturdy, sunny little boy, he pulls up his shirt sleeve and flexes to show it off.
Stephanie beams as she gazes at her child on another woman’s lap. She sees her son for a few hours every three months or so. “It gives me hope to know there’s someone out there waiting for me. I’ve got to heal and do good to be there for him. I just feel alive after his visit. It’s really hard in here. Me and his dad are incarcerated. Knowing he’s out there growing without me is really hard. Even so, I know I’m blessed. A lot of women don’t have any family coming to see them.” By the time she is scheduled to get out in 2016, Raisean will be 12.
By the end of the afternoon, Raisean finally surrenders his hold on his great-aunt. He sits in his mother’s lap, chewing on red licorice whips while she strokes his hair.
Lt. James Neely is on duty in the visiting room. “The hope is that the more inmates can be with their families and the more the families show the need to be part of their lives, that will help them when they get out,” he says. “We’re trying to instill that family connection so when they get out, they’re part of their families’ lives.”
Visitors line up to pay $2 a pop for Polaroids of them and the women they are visiting posed against a Halloween mural drawn by Kimberly Ingraham, a professional artist serving a term for DUI.
Sabrina Gonzalez’s sister, Angelique, brought Sabrina’s three youngest children on the charter. Sabrina, 35, has four older children aged 19, 18, 17, and 10.
Sabrina says she is in counseling for Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous and is on a waiting list for rehab. “Sometimes I go through a depression. I just want to sleep, but my sister has been a great help.”
Chonita, 5, sits on her right leg, drawing her a picture. Angel, 7, is perched on her left leg. Ronnie Jr., 4, is wearing a “Sister for sale—No offer refused” T-shirt. He butts his mother’s side like a calf and she wraps an arm around him.
All around the room you see kids making space for their moms to be moms. Diahanna arranges the board for Monopoly. “I need her to set it up,” Dartanyan says. “She’s a setter-upper. I’m a player.”
Gloria and Joan fill Diahanna in on what her son has been up to since she last saw him. “The hardest role in life is to be a mother,” Diahanna says. “The second hardest thing is to do it in here. It takes a mental toll on you and your child. To know another person is parenting your child is difficult.”
Well into the visit, Dartanyan starts being a little aloof because his mother has chastised him. After a few fake pouty moments, he asks her to go outside and play. They roughhouse in the small, sunny green swatch by the meeting room. He’s a big kid, but Diahanna manages to hoist him onto her back and carry him around.
Diahanna is grateful for the Family Express. “It’s a blessing. No phone call or letter can take the place of seeing him. Once he was at my shoulder, now he’s at my neck. You can see the new bruise or the new haircut. Every six weeks I have something to look forward to.”
It’s quiet on the ride home. The children sleep or stare at the Disney video playing on the bus. It smells like fast food and fruit leather. By the time the Family Express rolls into San Francisco around 9 p.m., it’s dark and cold again.
Editors’ note:Shortly before publication, we learned that Dartanyan Holton drowned in an accident just days before his mother, Diahanna Christie, was released on February 13, 2008. They took him off life support on February 15. The October trip was the last time he saw his mother.