It was a picture-perfect day in San Quentin’s visiting room as prisoners’ loved ones arrived from around the state to enjoy themselves with face painting, games, hugs and kisses.
Around Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, each year, Get on the Bus provides free transportation to the visiting rooms of several prisons for the relatives of convicts who live in communities as far north as the community of Citrus Heights as well as the southern city of San Diego.
“This is a much neglected population,” said community organizer, Cathy Kalin. “People may have a certain outlook about the person behind bars, but the children shouldn’t suffer from their parent’s mistakes.”
The event is financed on a shoestring budget, said program director, Hilary Carson. Faith-based organizations put on bake sales and raffles, along with small donations from ordinary people who support the program, she said.
This year, Pelican Bay was included in the event for the first time, said Kalin. “In the future, we hope to include some federal prisons.”
Providing better access to phones, letters, and visitation with family members are instrumental to limit the “pains of incarceration,” and has a positive influence on offenders, according to The Impact of Family Visitation on Incarcerated Youth’s Behavior and School Performance: Findings from the Families as Partners Project, by Vera Institute of Justice.
“We as a society should help the children by assisting them build a relationship with their parent because one day the parent will get out of prison,” said Kalin.
“A lot of children are the only person in their classroom with an incarcerated parent. When they come to a Get on the Bus event, they have the opportunity to see other children in similar situation as they are in—to see another child with an incarcerated parent.”
“You will always be a parent,” is quoted from Sesame Street handout, Tips for Incarcerated Parents. “Even though you are incarcerated, you can still play an important role in your child’s life,” it reads.
With an estimated 297,000 children having a parent in jail or prison, the greatest barrier to visitation is distance, according to Get on the Bus and The Impact of Family Visitation. Get on the Bus finds 60 percent of parents behind bars are held more than 100 miles from their children. The Impact of Family Visitation suggest that prison officials could greatly benefit by modifying visitation policies “to encourage frequent contact” between families.
“It’s good to see some of the guys have normal interactions with their families,” said Nigel Poor. Poor is a photographer who has been coming inside San Quentin for the past two years teaching her craft to the prisoners. “I’m interested in the nuances of human behavior. You may have assumptions of how a person is but you get to see these men in a new way. I don’t get to see much of the prison and this is another part of the puzzle.”
“It is always a blessing because I only get to see my niece and two nephews on this day,” said Troy Williams. “I feel happy that I get to see him. I really love my uncle,” said Erika Smith Troy’s niece. “This is a very emotional today,” said Melva Williams, Troy’s sister. “I haven’t seen him since 1993. I love him very much,” she said.
The Impact of Family Visitation shows when incarcerated adults receive visits from their children they have reduced incidents of disciplinary infractions. The reduced behavioral problems translate to a decreased risk to public safety when they are returned to the community.
“I think the Get on the Bus program is the best program they have for fathers who are unable to see their families,” said Brian Asey. “If it wasn’t for Get on the Bus, I wouldn’t be able to see my kid. The last time I saw my son was at last year’s Get on the Bus.” Asey was visited by his mother, Charlotte Casey, his son, Isaiah Martinez, his daughter, Desire Asey and his nephew Allen Gonsoulin, Jr.
Geton the Bus provides travel bags, comfort care bags for the caregivers, a photo of each child with his or her parent, and meals for the trip (breakfast, snacks on the bus, lunch at the prison, and dinner on the way home), all at no cost to the children’s family. On the bus trip home each child receives a “stay connected bag” which consists of pens, paper, stamps and other goodies to keep the children connected with their incarcerated parents.
Jamal Green was visited by the mother of his children, Jacinda, and his son, Jaquan, and daughters Journie and Josslyn. “My kids were over filled with joy to see me,” said Green. “This program was a blessing. My children said they had a ball and can’t wait till the next Get on the Bus event next year. My kids are grateful that this prison is allowing me to become a much better person before I return to them.”
Antoine Brown’s son, Romel Brown came to visit him. “The last time I saw my son was last year and it was because of Get on the Bus,” said Antoine Brown. “Although my son is shy, I could tell by our interaction that he enjoyed out time together.”
“I’m glad I did this,” said Isaiah Caldwell. “I like seeing papa,” said Caldwell’s grandson Zaedyn. “Last year was the first time I saw my dad in about nine years,” said Caldwell’s daughter, Faydra. “I had a six-hour ride that originated from Los Angeles. I think it’s a blessing to be able to use this service.”
“To not give the child and parent the opportunity to have a bond is tragic. For most of these kids they are the only one that has a parent incarcerated and to come here and see they are not alone is fantastic.” –Cathy Kalin
“The event at Folsom was a carnival style event where the children played volleyball and other games,” said Carson. “Most people have learned about the program by word of mouth.”
Three families of Death Row prisoners were accommodated by the Get on the Bus program.