Mother’s Day behind bars
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.
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