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

By Moore, Teresa | U.S. Catholic, May 2008 | Go to article overview

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


Moore, Teresa, U.S. Catholic


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

It is cold and dark when the chartered bus pulls out of San Francisco's Bayview District a little before 6 on a Sunday morning in late October. Eleven-year-old Dartanyan Holton is as frisky as a kid on a church trip to a theme park. But instead of waterslides and roller coasters, he's looking forward to spending the afternoon visiting his mother at a women's prison 150 miles away in Chowchilla, California.

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 morns 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.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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.

[ILLUSTRATIONS OMITTED]

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.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

There are about 40 tables of visitors in a room that looks a lot like a high school gymnasium. …

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