This was going to be the year that Dion DeMerrill would fully explain to his sons why he is in prison. The virus lockdown made that unlikely.
DeMerrill looks forward every year to this one chance to see his kids, when he and other incarcerated men and women link up with their kids, thanks to the Get On The Bus program.
Get on the Bus brings children and their caregivers from throughout the state of California to visit their mothers and fathers in prison.
But the COVID-19 pandemic forced all programs in state prisons to be suspended, including the Get on The Bus program that allowed him to visit with his kids.
He’s a father of three — an 18-year-old daughter, D’oni, who is in college, and two boys, 13-year-old Dion Jr. and 9-year-old Dr’Lon.
With numerous parents serving time in California prisons, their children are in the homes of relatives or subject to foster care.
According to research by the family reunification organization, Get on the Bus (GOTB), the negative outcomes of children with incarcerated parents include decreased mental health, behavioral and educational challenges, as well as higher rates of being incarcerated themselves.
“Before, when they asked when I was coming home, I told them I was in Texas,” DeMerrill said. “But my oldest son kept asking questions, so I told him what happened. A few weeks before Get on the Bus last year, my youngest son was told I am in prison. He still doesn’t know why. This year, I wanted to tell him the whole story.”
DeMerrill, 43, became an incarcerated parent when he was sentenced in 2013 to 16 years in state prison for involuntary manslaughter.
“The crime happened because of a lack of communications and respect,” said DeMerrill, who had never been in trouble with the law before. “I just happened to be in the middle of something.”
DeMerrill, the fourth child of five — and the only boy — added, “I was raised by my mother — a single parent. I grew up in West Oakland, California. My mother did her best with us. It was hard to raise a boy alone. She did not do just a good job, but a great job.”
When he was 21, DeMerrill moved out on his own, but kept in close contact with his mother and sisters.
“When this accident happened, they all came together to help me,” he said. “They are still supportive to me. If I need anything, they are right there for me. We were taught to always help each other when in need.”
DeMerrill came to San Quentin State Prison in 2017.
Talking to his kids on the phone helps him get by, he said. He also likes to relax by playing board games, exercising, watching the news and writing letters.
Since arriving at San Quentin, he’s been attending self-help groups. He’s graduated from the violence prevention programs No More Tears and Non-Violent Communications and is currently enrolled in the Guiding Rage Into Power (GRIP) program.
Two years ago, another prisoner told DeMerrill about GOTB.
“I filled out the application because my daughter just turned 18, so she was able to bring my two boys,” DeMerrill said.
An annual event, Get on the Bus offers free transportation for the children and their caregivers to the prison, provides travel bags for the children, comfort bags for the caregivers, a photo of each child with his or her parent, and meals for the day (breakfast, snacks on the bus, a special lunch at the prison with their parent and dinner on the way home), all at no cost to the children’s family. On the bus trip home, following a four-hour visit, each child receives a teddy bear with a letter from their parent and post-event counseling.
“At that time, I hadn’t touched my kids since December 2013 and I hadn’t seen them since December 2014. I was only able to call them once a week.
“Last year was full of tears,” he recounted. “When my kids saw me, they stared at me because they hadn’t seen me in so long. My youngest son was in Pampers when I came to prison and I missed his second birthday.” During the visit, they played board games and he gave his sons “horsey back rides.”
“I was too old for that,” DeMerrill said. “I thanked the lady who was responsible for bringing my kids.”
His daughter, D’oni, said last year was about “holding, touching, and hugging our dad — that’s the main thing.” Her brothers agreed.
DeMerril said he had wanted to use this year’s GOTB visit to teach his sons about prison — “that this is a place where you never want to come” — but the pandemic has kept them apart.
For D’oni too, this hit hard. She said the program is important because it’s the only time she and her brothers get to see their father.
She said she “hates COVID-19 because so many lives are being taken and everybody can’t go outside like how it used to be. I cope with it by spending quality time with my family.” But her dad is just too far.
“It’s too expensive for a plane ticket,” D’oni said. “So we rely on the Get on the Bus to see him. My favorite memory was being able to hug him, so being able to see him in 2019 was one of the best days of the whole year. I miss our trips together. They used to be so fun.”
DeMerrill’s 13-year-old, Dion Jr., said that COVID-19 is “kind of scary, because it’s deadly and we can’t go to school.” Like his sister, he said it’s hard to miss out on the only opportunity to see his dad. Getting the chance to spend time and play games with him were his best memories from last year.
Dr’lon said he’s coping with COVID-19 by playing video games with his older brother. He also said his favorite memories from 2019 were being with his dad on their Father’s Day visit.
“He always makes me laugh,” Dr’lon said. “I miss him playing with me.”