The country's prisons are overcrowded, and many of the offenders are there because of drug-related charges. So many offenders that are incarcerated today have issues with substance abuse and many times it is that substance abuse that landed them in prison in the first place. The overcrowding of California prisons has been a hot debate for years. Drug court has been one answer. Lessing drug related sentences is another suggestion. But, the answers do not come quick enough for some people. We too often forget the cost to the real innocent ones in the whole situation…the children.
On Mother's Day, we need to salute all mothers, and one California program aims to do just that. Many of the California prisons too far for family members to visit regularly, especially the poor, underprivileged children who too often end up with a drug addicted parent in prison. "Get on the Bus" brings children and their caregivers to see their parents in prison, and this year they coordinated a bus ride with a Mother's day visit.
Get on the Bus is an annual event, hosted at various California prisons, where children are given free transportation to visit their parent in prison. Each child is given a travel bag, a photo with his/her parent, as well as meals for the day. On the trip home, a teddy bear with a letter from their parent is presented, along with post-event counseling.
Recently Get on the Bus arrived in Chino, California at the California Institute for Women, according to Yahoo News. Hundreds of sleepy children tumbled out of the bus, on a rare visit to see their mothers. The mothers anxiously awaited, craning their necks to get the first glimpse of their children. Some of these mothers are housed almost 90 minutes from where their children live, and this is the first time some of these women have seen their children in years.
Norma Ortiz is a 31-year-old, who is one year into an eight year sentence for drug trafficking. She also gave birth to a premature infant in prison, and has not seen him since. He is now 11-months-old, and was on the bus. Surrounded by her other sons and her 55-year-old mother, she was radiant with the infant in her arms again. She choked back emotion, claiming," I need to be strong for them."
Women who give birth in prison generally hand the infant over to a relative or adoptive parents within 48 hours of the birth. I remember back to time I spent in jail. My cellmate was an African girl who was serving time for money laundering. She gave birth while in prison, and her husband was there to take the baby. Fatima only got to hold him once, and she already had another son her husband cared for at home. She fell into a deep depression after she gave birth to her second child in prison. But, when I met her, she was light and cheery. We talked all night a lot of the time. We were both college educated, and we both fell into some bad things. We talked and talked and talked. Fatima was getting out, and she was just waiting for that call, waiting to see those children again. She knew it could come any day, and it would be within the next two weeks. We wondered who would get called first, me or her? It was me, but I heard she left right after me. She was so excited to be reunited with her children. They lived in New Jersey, and she was in Virginia because that is the state the prosecuted. They were unable to visit. At the time, the gravity of being away from your children for so long did not hit me particularly hard, as I was not a mother at the time. But, as I read this article, I have tears in my eyes, as I think about the torture so many of these mothers must be feeling. As I try to write this article, and my three-year-old keeps tugging at my sleeve, I realize how lucky I am that I was not in that position. My heart goes out to all the mothers in prison today. I will pray for them all.
Karen van de Laat, the Southern California regional director for the group that organized this special Mother's Day event, Get on the Bus, said, "Having access to your mom should be a right. Being able to hug your mom should be a right. Some of these kids would rather live here with their mom than go home." Get on the Bus arranged for roughly 240 visitors to come from as far away as the San Francisco Bay area to see their mothers May 5. Sixty percent of the parents in California prisons are located over 100 miles away from their children, making visits tough.
Karen van de Laat argues that a child's chances for delinquency rise dramatically when their visits to incarcerated parents are denied. Nearly 900,000 children in California have a parent in the criminal justice system, making up nearly 10% of the children in California. Karen also claims that visits with incarcerated parents can help with readjustment once the parent gets out, and it helps provide an incentive not to return to prison. Inmates who do not receive such visits with their children are six times more likely to reoffend.
The prisons allow for children to visit the parents, but the parents are often located so far that it makes visits impossible. Many of the families of these incarcerated parents are poor, and the financial strain is even harder when one parent is in jail, and therefore cannot contribute to their children's welfare. Corrections department spokesperson said, "We encourage visiting and we try to make visiting as positive experience as possible. We understand that family relationships are a big contribution to someone's rehabilitation."
As the children left the women's prison last Saturday, the mother's watched through tears and smiles. They all hug, and families walk away, blowing kisses through the tears. The women have no idea when they may be able to see their children again, but they hope it is at least by next Mother's Day.
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