CDCR, Center for Restorative Justice Works emphasize connection

Story by Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR PIO II
Photos by Ike Dodson, CDCR PIO I
Office of Public and Employee Communications

Josh Walton acted quickly when his young daughters’ pent-up enthusiasm began bursting over and they started chattering loudly and squirming about. But he didn’t look annoyed at all.

The look on his face was pure joy.

Walton, incarcerated at High Desert State Prison (HDSP), doesn’t get many chances to be an in-person dad alongside his wife, Christin. That’s why the Get On The Bus (GOTB) program is so important to him and his family, as it offers families the opportunity to spend a whole day with their incarcerated loved ones, at no expense to the families.

“My kids are my life,” said Walton, beaming at daughters Lilie, 3, and Medow, 4. “Seeing them gets me through it. I know I can get through the rest of it.”

GOTB is a partnership of CDCR and the Center for Restorative Justice Works (CRJW), a Los Angeles-based nonprofit serving those affected by the criminal justice system. GOTB began 17 years ago at Central California Women’s Facility, after Sister Suzanne Jabro of St. Joseph of Carondelet visited the prison to speak with women about what they needed, and they overwhelmingly voiced their desire to spend more time with their children.

Collecting donations and volunteers, Jasbro and CRJW organized a bus to bring 13 children from throughout the state to visit their moms. This year, 52 buses transported more than 1,200 children and their caregivers to 11 state prisons and one federal institution to visit their incarcerated mothers and fathers.

“It’s about family reunification,” said CRJW Program Coordinator Walter Hammond. “It’s also an opportunity for the inmates, because they have to demonstrate good behavior in order to be part of this program. It helps them model for the other inmates that this is an opportunity for them to be part of this, too.”

GOTB is a coordinated, months-long effort of volunteers, CRJW and prison staff. Incarcerated parents who want to be part of the event fill out an application inside the prison.

Once they qualify CRJW volunteers work with family members on the outside to gather the necessary paperwork, become approved visitors if they are not already, and make travel arrangements.

Buses leave from throughout the state, traveling in some cases 11 hours to bring the children to their parents. On the way home, each child is provided with a teddy bear and letter from his or her parent.

“We introduced GOTB to the offender population at HDSP because many of them live long distances from their children, and rarely get to visit with their children,” said HDSP Warden M. Eliot Spearman.

“I saw a lot of healing of torn relationships take place during that weekend between dads and kids.  Everywhere I went the children were grateful for the opportunity to visit their dads,” he said. “I truly thank Division of Rehabilitative Programs Director Jay Virbel for providing HDSP with the resources to make GOTB 2017 a reality.”

The HDSP program is possible through the Innovative Grant Program, a CDCR initiative to increase programming at prisons historically underserved by volunteers. Men serving time at HDSP pitched in as well, raising enough money through food sale fundraisers to pay for the families to spend two nights in a hotel in Susanville.

“They raised the money for the families,” said Amalia Molina, executive director of CRJW. “The families are not paying, not even for the hotel – more than 30 rooms. Isn’t it amazing? That’s a good way for them to give back.”

Local churches also rallied for the cause, providing food for the families and also a host of volunteers to work with the children and CRJW staff throughout the day. Anna Plaster, who works at neighboring California Correctional Center, came to HDSP for the day along with fellow Sacred Heart Catholic Church members, and said GOTB is a cause well worth supporting.

“This is such a remote location,” she pointed out. “We have a lot of children from Southern California who are here. It’s just really difficult to make the trip to see family – I am very happy they can do this program and not worry so much about the expenses.”

Miguel Cerda said finding the funds to visit can be a challenge for his mother and sister, who came to GOTB along with sons Michael and Christian.

“We miss being with our dad,” Michael said. “It’s sad we can’t see him every day.”

Seeing his family, Cerda said, reminds him of why it’s important to stay positive and work on building a good future – even if that future doesn’t include leaving prison.

“It gives me a reason to want to continue,” he said. “I’ve got life without the possibility of parole. They are my reason – my family is my reason for me to continue looking forward. I am grateful for these programs.”

Indeed, several staff members at HDSP commented on how important visits are to maintaining family bonds. Correctional Officer R. Mojarra said GOTB was out of the ordinary for his visiting post, as the day included activities like face painting and other kid-focused activities, but he saw the event as a great way to incentivize positive behavior.

“Visiting helps inmates feel they have their family’s support, so they can finish their programs, finish their education, so they have something to look forward to and have a goal to reach,” he said.

“There’s a definite difference when they come out to visit their family. You can tell by looking at the inmate that their family is everything, and that’s who they strive to impress.”

“The HDSP visiting staff did a phenomenal job in processing the families into our prison,” Spearman added. “I continue to stand amazed at the accomplishments of the hardworking employees at HDSP as they practice restorative justice concepts.”

HDSP Catholic Chaplain Joseph McLachlan commented on the difficulty in overcoming distance to stay connected. He makes a point to stay in touch with his family in Scotland, and said while talking on the phone is one thing, an in-person visit has a whole other significance.

“It make a big, big difference to see your family,” he said. “Family helps rehabilitation, so when you can get family in, when you can get the inmates to see their family members, that changes a prison bit by bit. Because then the guys have a reason.”

For some men at HDSP, the special visit was the first time they had seen their children in several years, and for some it was the first time ever. Patrick McPherson hadn’t seen his 11-year-old daughter, Amaya, in two years, and said that while the visit was emotional, it was so very important.

“I need it for me, but more for her,” he said. “I want to be there for everything I can, but I’m in this situation. It means a lot to be sitting down talking to her, hugging her, wiping her tears –and letting her know that wherever I’m at, I’m still here for her.”