Program enables 1,100 children to visit their incarcerated parents

Story and photos by Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer II
Office of Public and Employee Communications

More than 1,000 children got to celebrate Mother’s Day and Father’s Day with their incarcerated parents, thanks to a team of big-hearted people who put a lot of hard work into making sure families stay connected, even when a parent is behind bars.

“It’s about the kids,” said Jacquiline Wagner of Holy Family Church, as she watched children reunite with their mothers at Folsom Women’s Facility (FWF). “The kids have done nothing wrong in this, and it’s our duty to help children. It’s the right thing to do – they deserve to see their parents.”

Wagner is a coordinator for Get On The Bus (GOTB), a program of the Center for Restorative Justice Works (CRJW) that provides free transportation for children and a caregiver to visit their incarcerated parents. This year, 1,100 children visited their parents at California Institution for Women (CIW), Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF), FWF, Correctional Training Facility, Salinas Valley State Prison, California Men’s Colony, Valley State Prison (VSP), San Quentin State Prison, Folsom State Prison (FSP) and California State Prison-Sacramento (SAC).

“I thank God for these people, because it’s something they don’t have to do,” said Sparkle Harris as she played with her four children at CCWF. “To take their time out to do it, it just goes to show what type of people they are, and I appreciate it.”

It is a big effort for volunteers, who work with families to ensure all the paperwork is in order before the visits, ride the buses to and from prisons throughout the state, and facilitate family-friendly activities at the event. It’s also a lot of work for CDCR staff, who work for months beforehand to schedule the mothers and fathers, process security clearances and ensure space and staffing for the event. They do it with pride, as keeping family ties strong is a vital part of an offender’s rehabilitation.

“Education, job training, professional development, higher self-esteem and family reunification continue to be the focal point and the mission of CCWF,” said Warden Deborah K. Johnson. “Family reunification is huge. If they don’t make that connection while they’re here, then they cannot have a successful reunification once they leave. That is our philosophy.”

Down the road from CCWF, inmates at VSP spent an early Father’s Day in May with their children. Donald Cornelius Gandy’s daughter, Tajanique, traveled overnight from Riverside County to see her dad, and both said they appreciated how family-centered GOTB is.

“It’s a moment of heaven,” Gandy said. “I’m experiencing a moment of heaven, because only through the GOTB environment are we able to have these types of real, intimate connections.”

Indeed, GOTB facilitators make sure all involved are comfortable, from the bus ride there to the long ride home. In addition to CRJW volunteers, several churches near state prisons make breakfast for the visitors, and throughout the visits volunteers provide family activities such as games, face painting and family portraits. Each child is sent home with a teddy bear and a letter from his or her parent.

Inmates must maintain good behavior in order to participate in the program, and for many seeing their family is just the incentive they need to stay on the right track.

“It keeps me motivated to really stay focused on doing what I’ve got to do to get out,” shared Carlos Smith, who was reunited with his son, daughter and two grandsons at San Quentin. “It’s important that family is maintained, whether in prison or out.”

This year’s visits to FSP, FWF and SAC were made particularly meaningful by the presence of Bishop David O’Connell, Episcopal Vicar of the San Gabriel Pastoral Region of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. When he learned of the work GOTB is doing to help families stay connected, he was so moved he decided not only to attend the final visits of the year, but to get on the bus himself, riding overnight from Southern California.

“Whenever I see people helping children like this, I want to help,” O’Connell said. “I want to support them and be part of it and do whatever I can. I really admire what Get On The Bus is doing in providing a support network for these kids who may have been feeling abandoned.”

O’Connell visited each of the three Folsom facilities, speaking with families, volunteers and staff. He said he was moved by the men and women who shared their stories with him, and particularly by the families left at home still working to keep their connections strong. He chuckled as he shared how one inmate told him how he told a friend how guilty he felt because he isn’t a dad anymore, and his friend told him no, he’s still a father, even in prison.

“I said, ‘My God, that’s exactly what I say to guys in the parish as a priest,’” O’Connell laughed. “I say that even if you’re divorced from mom, if you’re in different states, different countries, even when you’re in prison, do your best to be a dad to your child.”

Children of all ages take part in GOTB each year, from newborn babies to grown sons and daughters. Kaitlyn Sorell, 22, traveled from Palmdale to visit her mom, Kelly Sorell, at CCWF.

The pair, so excited to see one another they were finishing each other’s sentences, shared how this was the first time they had gotten to touch in 12 years, as Kelly Sorell had not been allowed contact visits in the 11 years she spent in county jail.

Now that she’s at CCWF, she is looking toward her future, which includes staying positive and re-bonding with her daughter.

“This can be a very negative environment, but by the same token it is what you make of it,” she mused. “If you remove yourself from the negative and just do the best you can to make it a good environment for yourself, it can work.”

Amalia Molina, executive director of CRJW, said it costs half a million dollars annually to provide visits for the children, funds raised through grants and private donations. GOTB is now an Innovative Grant Program recipient, meaning CDCR will fund the program’s expansion into  another prison, High Desert State Prison in Susanville, next year.

GOTB began 16 years ago at CCWF, when Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet Suzanne Steffen and Susan Jasbro visited Chowchilla to see how they might be of service to the inmates.

“They expected the women would complain about the facility, the food,” Molina said. “The nuns said, ‘What do you want us to do for you?’ All of them said: ‘We want to see our children.’”

The ripple effects of GOTB are seen not only in the smiles on the children’s faces and the uplifted mood of the parents. The rest of the population picks up on the positive vibe as well, even going so far as to decorate the night before the event. Terah Lawyer is not a mother, but she spent a Saturday helping organize the goody bag station at CCWF, and reflected on how important events like this are to helping ensure offenders don’t return to prison.

“A life of crime basically shatters communities, and it hurts so many people,” she said. “Being able to watch these women at one of their most vulnerable states, filled with shame and guilt behind mistakes and poor choices they’ve made, connect with their children, helps them reinforce the meaning of what’s important while they are incarcerated, which is getting that help, getting that therapy, rehabilitating themselves, pursuing their educational goals, and pushing forward to make a better example and a living example for their children.”