Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Incarcerated mothers visit with their children

Visiting loved ones in prison
Garrity, Bridget. Los Angeles Tidings, March 30, 2007.

Donna, a petite blond, is sitting on the floor with her four-year-old granddaughter Dreena in her lap, explaining why, after her daughter Amber's incarceration, her home nearly went into foreclosure. "The rental cars, the hotel rooms, the phone bills..." She becomes teary. "See, I'm crying already," she laughs.

It's 5 a.m., and 72 people have gathered in the pre-dawn hours to ride a bus 265 miles to see their incarcerated mothers, daughters, and sisters. Many cradle sleepy toddlers and infants in their arms.

Today, a bus goes to Chowchilla, the first of its kind in the state (or in any state) funded by the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to bring family members to their incarcerated loved ones; this group is its first riders. The Chowchilla Family Express heads off a series of 26 free trips to Chowchilla's Central California Women's Facility and the Valley State Prison for Women, together the largest women's prison in the world.

"It's been a long time coming, but it's here and it's rolling," says State Senator Gloria Romero, along for the inaugural trip. The sense of accomplishment and joy --- even relief --- is palpable.

Ethel is eager to tell her story. In tow are Ethel's daughter, 12-year-old Sabrina, and three-year-old granddaughter, Msalijah. Msalijah's mother is at Chowchilla; her father, Ethel's son, is in prison as well. Ethel herself did time twice at Chowchilla. Both times she had infant children, and during neither incarceration was she allowed to see her children.

"When I got out in '94," she recalls, "it was the hardest, because I had to do a year of [drug rehabilitation], and Sabrina really didn't know who I was. She was afraid to come to me."

Ethel's situation underscores Wendy Still's observation that collaborative efforts are critical in breaking the intergenerational cycle of incarceration. Still, the associate director of Women's Offender Programs and Services, points out that family reunification is crucial to successful re-entry.

"We know that children with attachment disorders are twice as likely to become offenders themselves," Still says. "Children's attachment to mom is as critical to their development as it is to their mother's rehabilitation."

Natalya is on the bus to visit her mother, Karen. With her are her own daughter, Jaelen, 3, and Jaelen's great grandmother, Baby --- four generations of women. Twenty-four-year-old Natalya recounts how she did not see her mother for months after her offense, not until she was watching TV and her mother's photograph came across the screen on "America's Most Wanted."
"She didn't come to us, she didn't go the police," Natalya notes sadly. "She ran. She was scared."

"It's not enough to be tough on crime, we need to be smart on crime. Tough is not enough," says Romero. About 200,000 children in the state have an incarcerated parent. Of that number, about half never get to see their parent during the course of incarceration. Many women are placed in facilities hundreds of miles from their families, with few visitors. Romero notes that the "bad mother" notion often comes into play, further alienating women from hopes of reunification.

Stills agrees. "If a child doesn't see his incarcerated mother within 15-18 months, parental rights are no longer protected."

The Chowchilla Family Express, directed by Eric DeBode, is the result of a collaborative effort among St. Joseph of Carondelet Sister Suzanne Jabro's non-profit organization, Women and Criminal Justice, Still's Gender Responsive Committee, Romero's Commission on Public Safety, and the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

"We're putting the big 'R' back in rehabilitation," comments Mary Lattimore, chief deputy warden of CCFW, who emphasizes the institution's "absolute" support for the endeavor.

The first riders arrive in style: a red carpet, and a swarm of photographers and cameramen. "I feel like a movie star!" says one participant.

Inside the prison, the women wait, eagerly looking through the glass windows of the visiting room for any sign of their loved ones. Upon reuniting, the room is filled with tears, laughter and delight. It's not until little Jaelin calls off the press ("I just can't do this right now!" she says to a photographer), that reunification truly begins.

Ethel's daughter fusses with Msalijah's hair, admires it, then fusses with it again. Across the room, Natalya's mom presses her for news of school. Before long, families are playing games, sharing stories, and enjoying each other's company as if no time had passed --- as if they might be sitting around the kitchen table at home.

In the small grassy courtyard outside, the children play games of "Red Light, Green Light" and "London Bridge." Mothers take turns watching each other's children. When Dreena's mom excuses herself for a moment and returns, she sighs, "I wish I hadn't missed a minute of this," to which Dreena responds with open arms, "Oh, Mom! Come here and let me give you a hug!"

The atmosphere is joyous and family-like. It could be any city park in the country, except that here, there are only four precious hours for a mother to take delight in and bestow love upon her child.

As the visit nears to a close, the first riders embrace their loved ones, and tears flow. Several reminders are given by the guards that it's time to go. Back on the bus, goodie bags and teddy bears are passed out as the bus departs to ease the separation.

On the journey home, the children use the toys to process the day. Says one little girl's bear to another little girl's bunny, "Hi, daughter! I got out of jail today! It's your mom, and I love you."


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