Ana González-Lane says she was “pretty scared and freaked out” the first time she came into San Quentin State Prison nine years ago.
“It was such a frightening place,” she said. “It’s meant to be intimidating, and it was.”
She now realizes San Quentin is not the dangerous place most people believe it to be, after seeing the impact of children interacting with their fathers.
She remembered watching a little boy, about 3 years old, run to his father like “a ball of energy, yelling, ‘Daddy! Daddy!’ It was at that point that I realized my calling.”
González-Lane is the San Francisco area regional coordinators for Get on the Bus (GOTB), a faith-based organization that reunites children with their incarcerated parents on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
Nationally, the number of kids who have had a parent in jail or prison at some point in their childhood hovers around 5.1 million — a conservative estimate, according to the report A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Kids, Families and Communities by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
González-Lane is a retired school administrator who taught children for 30 years. She said seeing children and parents together makes working with GOTB worth it.
“The children need to know that you’re still around and interested in their lives and care”
She recalled seeing a young woman reunite with her father on Death Row. The girl, who was in her late teens, hadn’t seen her father since the age of 6. She came to the visit alone.
“At first, she was a bundle of nerves and didn’t even know why she came to see her father but just decided to come, without knowing what to expect,” González-Lane said. “When they began the visit, they sat far apart, and things looked awkward. However, as the day wore on, they talked and sat closer. By the end of the day, they were huddled. I was hoping he was going to be one of the last visitors to go back. It was painful to watch her leave.”
González-Lane asked the young woman about the visit.
She was surprised. “I am so much like my dad,” she said, pausing and adding, “In a good way.”
“I learned a lot about my dad and I learned a lot about myself, too,” she said. She told González-Lane that she’ll be back next year.
“How can you put a price on something like that?” González-Lane said.
She also remembered talking to a youngster who was preparing for high school. The boy regularly visited his father, who was incarcerated in the federal prison in Lompoc.
The visits made a big difference in the child’s attitude by giving him the chance to talk about his life with his father, González-Lane said. The youngster told her no one could listen to what was happening in his life and give the kind of feedback that his father could.
Preserving a child’s relationship with a parent during incarceration benefits both parties, according to A Shared Sentence. It also benefits society, reducing children’s mental health issues and anxiety, while lowering recidivism and facilitating parents’ successful return to their communities.
GOTB, which receives no federal funding, survives through donations from faith-based institutions.
It costs about $4,000 to lease each bus, not including donations such as teddy bears, backpacks, coloring books, games and snacks for the kids, González-Lane said. At the end of every visit, the children receive a “stay in touch” bag to write to their parents.
González-Lane recommends to incarcerated parents that they write to their children, call them and arrange for visits as often as possible.
“The children need to know that you’re still around and interested in their lives and care,” she said. “You should ask them about school. It means a great deal to them.” She added, “Even if you write the letter and they don’t write back, they are getting your letters.”