On June 15, multiple San Quentin residents were gifted with the opportunity to visit their children and grandchildren — some of them for the first time — thanks to the Get on the Bus program.
The popular program helps families with children visit their loved ones in prison by providing transportation free of charge. Get on the Bus is operated by the Center for Restorative Justice Works, a nonprofit started over 20 years ago under the Catholic Archdiocese.
“My family didn’t approve of me moving to San Quentin because of the distance, but I chose to come here because it gives me the best opportunity to change and go home,” said Anthony Graham as he nervously waited to see his kids for the first time during his 14-year incarceration.
The visit was possible thanks to Get on the Bus returning to The Q for the first time since the COVID pandemic. Families were picked up by the program’s buses from as far away as Los Angeles and delivered to San Quentin to see their incarcerated loved ones.
Once here, participants were treated to tables full of snacks, beverages and even Roundtable pizza. In addition, numerous games and coloring materials were provided and donated to SQ’s visiting room.
Three SQ musicians — Lee Jasper on keyboard, John Zeretske on violin, Daniel Li on violin — performed live music during the visit. The normally overcrowded visiting room felt spacious and peaceful as families settled in to play games, talk and take photos.
“The visit was perfect,” said Andre White, after meeting his five-year-old daughter for the first time. “I kept thinking, ‘What is she going to think of me?’ I am a work in progress to become a better man.”
White had an opportunity to practice his role as a father when a teachable moment came up. He knew his daughter was afraid of the police, so he walked her over to the correctional officer’s desk to say hello. The officers smiled and waved back.
“I told her, ‘You don’t need to be afraid of to be afraid of them. I made bad decisions before, but not anymore, so I don’t have to be afraid of them,’” White said.
The last person to enter the visiting room was Kristal Corona, program director for Get on the Bus, who waited to ensure that all visitors were able to clear security and make it inside.
Corona, who has been with the Center for Restorative Justice Works for two years, said her journey to a career of helping those in need began when she worked with at-risk children.
“I loved the idea that for people to heal, we need to give them an environment to heal,” she said.
She humorously described the program’s process as being like childbirth: It’s difficult and requires help from a lot of people.
Despite only recently resuming visits due to the pandemic ending, the Get on the Bus program is planning to expand its operations. Corona explained their vision to increase the number of visits, include more prisons and even offer access to therapy for families after visits.
The Get on the Bus program was born over 20 years ago out of the kindness of two nuns, Sister Suzanne Steffen and Sister Suzanne Jabro of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. The two were offering spiritual guidance to residents at the California Institute for Women as part of their prison ministry. It was there that they asked a question of the incarcerated women that changed everything: “What can we do to help?”
They were surprised when the answer was to “see their children,” instead of asking for books or makeup as they had expected. The sisters learned that some of the incarcerated mothers had not even seen their kids for years or even decades.
In 1999, the first bus dropped off family members for a day of visiting at the prisons in Chowchilla. That one bus, with 15 children, is how it all started. Seeing the kids running to their parents on that day was the seed from which the program grew.
Get on the Bus now offers its service to 13 prisons across California. They are limited only by funding as they rely on grants and donations from faith-based organizations, foundations and individuals.
Some of those who have benefitted from the program have now returned to help with the organization. Manuel Gomez, once a resident at Folsom State Prison, now serves on the board of directors. Karen Jones, a volunteer whose son is locked up at the California Training Facility at Soledad, says being involved with the program has been one of the greatest experiences of her life.
“Seeing the families hug and say goodbye, knowing that you helped make that happen, there’s just nothing else like that feeling,” she said.
that feeling,” she said.
During the visit at The Q, resident Carlos Smith was so happy to see his adult son for the first time since the COVID pandemic that he introduced him to all his San Quentin friends who were present. Smith shared that while the tablets have allowed greater communication with family, they cannot compare to an in-person visit.
“Family connection is important. It lets me know that I still have value, that people love me and believe in me,” Smith said. “When my mind goes to wrong thinking, my family keeps me supported and on the right track.”
The organization’s executive director, Liz Rios, made an appearance at the event, walking amongst the families and sharing smiles and stories. When asked about the prison’s transformation into an innovative rehabilitation center, she said, “If reunification and connection with family is part of the Norway model, we’re all about that.”
After the visit, White said he saw a lot of himself in his daughter. “Maybe too much,” he added with a laugh. Being able to spend time with her in person helped him form the foundation for a loving relationship, which he plans to build on after his release. Due to his rehabilitative efforts, his release date has been advanced to exactly one year from the date of the visit.
However, he almost didn’t get to attend the event. After originally being denied for the program, White learned there was a clerical mistake in his C-file that needed correcting. Searching desperately for help, he took the issue to South Block’s Lt. Haub, who was instrumental in getting it resolved.
“I will do whatever it takes to get your daughter here,” Lt. Haub had told him. True to his word, after making some calls, he got the problem resolved.
White said he wasn’t able to calm his nerves until the moment he saw his little girl walk into the room and smile at him. He expressed deep gratitude for all the people that helped to make that happen.
“She is the most important thing in the world to me,” White said about his daughter. “Now I’m motivated even more to get out of here for her.”