Mother’s Day behind bars

May 11, 2012

By Lucy Nicholson

The children bounded off the bus and ran excitedly towards a tall fence topped with razor wire. In the distance, through layers of fencing overlooked by a guard tower, huddled a group of mothers in baggy blue prison-issue clothes, pointing, waving and gasping. Many had not seen their children in over a year.

Frank Martinez jumped up and down, shrieking with delight. “Stay right there Mommy,” he yelled. “Don’t cry.” As the children disappeared into a building to be searched and x-rayed, a couple of the mothers began sobbing.

An annual Mother’s Day event, Get On The Bus, provides free transport for hundreds of children to visit their incarcerated moms at California Institute for Women in Chino, and other state prisons. Sixty percent of parents in state prison report being held over 100 miles from their children, and visits are impossible for many.

California locks up more women than any other state in the U.S. — 11,250 in 2007 – and three quarters are mothers. The children left behind with family or in foster care often feel abandoned and some don’t see their moms for years.

Regular prison visits lower rates of recidivism for the parent, and make the child better emotionally adjusted and less likely to become delinquent, according to The Center for Restorative Justice Works, the non-profit organization that runs the Get on the Bus program.

Reuters reporter Mary Slosson and I choked back tears as we walked into a large room packed with mothers throwing their arms around their kids, spinning them round in tight hugs. A shriek rose above the cacophony of voices and laughter every time a new child was escorted in.

“You’ve grown!” “Your feet are as big as mine!” “I’ve missed you,” came the cries.

Outside, Norma Ortiz, 31, cooed and fed her eleven-month-old son Axel with a bottle of milk for the first time since he was taken away after she gave birth to him in the prison. Her mother Olga, 55, and her three sons surrounded her protectively. I asked Norma how it felt to see her baby. “I can’t talk about that,” she said, nodding towards her sons. “I need to be strong for them”.

Other mothers chased their children around the climbing bars, and down the slide in a small playground, as a burly prison guard paced the perimeter. Most quietly chatted, or played board games during the few hours they had together.

Children stood on tiptoes to push the coins they had brought into vending machines, which were off limits to the inmates. They carried back bags of chips and soda gifts for their moms.

“I know how to do side flips,” boasted seven-year-old Levell Jones to his mother Shonta Montgomery, 28, who said she was serving time for involuntary manslaughter. It was the first time he had seen her in seventeen months. Montgomery clasped his face, sat him down, and began tying his shoe lace. “When you go home, wash your laces just like we used to do,” she told him.

“No-one wants to see their relative behind bars,” said Christal Huerta, 22, who was visiting her mother Sonia Huerta, 36, with her 12-year-old sister Breeanna Huerta. Their father was deported to Mexico three years ago, and now Christal takes care of her two sisters at their grandmother’s home. “It’s kind of sad, because you expect to have both parents with you, teaching you how to become an adult and how to become responsible,” she said. “But they’ve taught me enough to teach my other sisters.”

“You need to have a lot of strength and patience to deal with things that come. I’m just glad my parents are still alive, and I could see them. Others aren’t so lucky. I’m just very happy for the things I do have. I always try to stay positive.”

As the afternoon slipped away, and the guards began to call for children to board buses back to different cities in California, a quiet settled over the yard. Lakisha Perry, 29, cradled her daughter Stephanie with her arms and kissed her forehead as they both stared into the distance. “I want to stay here with you,” Stephanie said.

A few children cried as they touched their mothers’ hands across a line of tape on the floor, marked with “Do Not Cross,” as they were ushered out of the room by a prison guard. Most shuffled out in stunned silence.

Back on the bus, the children hugged cuddly toy animals they had been given and stared trance-like out of the window at the receding prison fence. A couple of girls curled up in the fetal position under blankets on the seats and fell into a deep sleep. The bus carried them back to Los Angeles to resume serving their own time.

(View a slideshow of images here)

(Read the full story here)


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Photo of Woman’s Prison in Oregon:

from the series, “Prison Scene”, at

Posted by hkrieger | Report as abusive

Must admit, this is one story on Mother’s Day I never would have considered.

Posted by alwayslearning | Report as abusive

America is increasingly a nation which is self destructing and destroying families and individuals. Years of predatory financing, vicious job competition, and higher costs of living have left too many unable to survive and function, much less provide a decent standard of living for their families. It seems that America is not even a country anymore, but just a Darwinian, no holds barred battle for enriching a few at the expense of the many. You can bet that money is being made in for profit prisons. There is no escaping exploitation in America, except for those doing the exploiting.

Posted by Greenspan2 | Report as abusive

Think I’m crying about as hard as Lucy and Mary must have wanted to when they saw the children being reunited with their mothers… It makes me all the more grateful to be with my children today. Thank you for a brave and beautiful story, and to your editors for not being too cynical to let you do it.

Posted by beechtree | Report as abusive

Our prison system’s primary function is to increase its population because it is PROFITABLE. That’s all.

Have we Americans ever shown compassion for our children & families ?….it is not in the interest of Corporate America.

Our President just reaffirmed this with his ‘evolution’,
which will make things even worse, as this is a direct attack on the family unit.

Now sexually obsessive Same Sex Couples qualify in adopting parent-less children, and only God knows with what intentions.

Yes, America is going to Hell.

Posted by GMavros | Report as abusive

How about you previous posters – instead of complaining about it in a reuters comment form – you look into ways of shutting prisons down?

And GMarvos, your comment about same sex couples is inappropriate. First of all, what does it have to do with your comment about prisons being examples of corruption? Secondly, you have not done your research on same-sex couples adopting. The chances of traumatizing a child are equal across the board between gay AND straight couples. In fact, the chaances for molestation are highest in your very own straight, religious households.

Also, if you don’t want your family destroyed by being sent to a for-profit prison, hows about you don’t commit any crimes? You jerks need to remember that people do these things to themselves. I’ve been in the California Penal System. It’s still relatively rare for an innocent person to be sentenced if they have even a half-competent public defender.

Posted by bpwilbur | Report as abusive

@Greenspan2 – Quite well put.

For these reasons, the progressive and excessive extortion and manipulation in America on all levels, those very few born to real genius want little more than to watch the world burn. We see the capacity of the masses to set the fires for us, without any provocation. So, we watch. We need only watch.

Righteous fury is indeed a difficult burden to bear, especially with an abundance of immorality staining the legacy of our forefathers, who are assuredly turning in ther graves.

Posted by Xeraphim | Report as abusive

The future of Mother’s Day in the US as the Hispanic population continues to grow?

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

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Posted by tgfrjjgh | Report as abusive

What are trying to say, Boy ?

Posted by GMavros | Report as abusive

Unlike other nations that allow mothers to either live inside sheltered facilities with their children, or have extended visits, the United States mandates punitive and restrictive relationships. These dire circumstances, for both mother and child, continue to destroy families, and make a breeding ground for future disfunctional and/or criminal offspring. Why is the American Justice System (Corrections Departments), focused on debilitating family relationships,instead of rehabilitation and unity?

Posted by orionciara | Report as abusive

Ho letto il post (Photographers Blog) e pertanto affermo che, per il viaggiatore che sono interessati al tour mondiale e ancora preoccupato per i servizi dei viaggiatori forniscono devono farci visita per i servizi di qualità e affidabile. Ci sono solo al servizio del tipo di business. get it here

Posted by shalimartsohaib | Report as abusive