In celebration of Father’s Day, dozens of children, many with painted faces, spent the morning of June 17 in a prison visiting room, laughing and playing with their incarcerated fathers. The event, held at San Quentin State Prison, also accommodated 35 adult sons and daughters.
“Children and incarcerated people don’t have a voice. They are some of the least powerful in society,” said co-coordinator of the event, John Kalin. “That’s what draws me to Get on the Bus.”
The Get On The Bus project was founded in 1999 by Sister. Suzanne Jabro, CSJ.
The program does all the paperwork for the visit. It provides chaperones for children who have no adult to accompany them. It charters the buses to and from the prisons, and provides all the meals during the travel.
For the last six years, John and his wife, Catherine, have coordinated the Get On The Bus event at San Quentin.
“It’s so rewarding to see children hugging their dads. They don’t get to do it as often as children living in other places,” Catherine said. “One 47-year-old woman said, ‘He’s still my dad and I still want to give him a hug.’”
Get On The Bus, in conjunction with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, has held the annual event for 16 years. This year, 11,000 children will be reunited with their parents in the visiting rooms of seven men’s prisons and three women’s prisons across the state. Next year, the program is scheduled to expand to High Desert State Prison.
Keya Banks traveled from Los Angeles with her son, Demauri Williams, so that he could meet his incarcerated grandfather. Travis Banks has been incarcerated since his daughter, Keya was 16 years old.
“I want them to get to know each other,” Keya said. “I want my son to have that bond that I didn’t have growing up.”
“My father has always reached out to me and stayed connected, even when he was in and out of jail,” she added. “At first, I didn’t want a relationship with him, but when I got older, I realized people make mistakes, they learn from them and grow from them.”
Keya acknowledged that “it’s important to be with your family. Things happen and we have to move on.”
Keya’s mother added, “It feels good to be connected. As long as he’s here, we’ll keep coming back.”
A 2013 study shows more than 1.75 million children under the age of 18 had a parent in a state or federal prison in the United States. Nationally, about 53 percent of men and 61 percent of women in the U.S. prison population are parents. This represents nearly 810,000 incarcerated parents.
“It is joyous to see families reunited,” said Philip Haik, one of the 22 Get On The Bus staffers assisting the San Quentin event. “It’s good to give back, especially when you have been so blessed.” Haik also volunteers in feeding the homeless and makes contributions to the Navajo nation.
For the last four years, inmate John Vernacchio, the visiting room photographer, has worked during the event.
“I look forward to this every year because the sponsors are some of the nicest people you can meet,” he said.
Jason Jones has about 10 months left to serve on his 12year sentence.
His wife, Katy Flood, and his step-children Kiley Lyon and Rappor Lyon made the three-and-a-half-hour trip from Visalia, California, to see him.
“Getting time to spend with Jason is good,” Kiley said. “We get to do things that we don’t do on regular visits,” Jones added, referring to the face painting and games, Subway sandwiches for lunch and photos.
“They had all kinds of refreshments on the bus and blankets. They made us pancakes and bacon for breakfast,” Katy said. “They did a great job. Next year, I’ll have to make the pancakes,” she added, while looking at Jones.
“I can’t wait for that,” Jones replied, smiling.
For more information about Get On The Bus, go to www.getonthebus.us.