With two sons serving life
sentences, one mother
crisscrosses California for
overnight family visits
Elizabeth Hurren has always put her children first. Her native El Salvador was a land in turmoil in the early 1980s. There was rarely enough food to go around, and the mother of six often went hungry for her family, not knowing what tomorrow would bring.
In 1981, her country erupted into civil war. Just 26 years old, compelled by a desperate need to provide her children a better future, she decided to leave El Salvador; it was the most difficult decision of her entire life. She knew she would face great risk and likely danger, but her children deserved a chance, and for that, she would cross any distance. Such was her love for her children.
That brave, unflinching woman is my mother.
She knew the journey ahead would be impossible with small children in tow. Her oldest child, Roberto, was 12 years old in 1981. Marcos was 10, Gabriel eight, and I was seven. My sister, Eli, and little baby Amilcar, were five and three. But with no other option remaining, she tearfully left us with her partner, Frank, the father of my two youngest siblings, and struck out for the north.
For the next six years she did everything she could for her kids. Finding work wherever possible, she sent
money to Frank to put food in our bellies — money he wasted on prostitutes, rather than feeding his own
After settling in Los Angeles, she sent first for Roberto, then for Gabriel. She returned for the rest of us in 1989. She never gave up on her dream of having all her children back together, and she persevered tirelessly until at last that dream could be realized.
The late 1980s saw my mother in the prime of her life. She was a slim woman with beautiful brown eyes and a loving smile. She liked old faded jeans with colorful blouses and high heels. Her wavy hair was long; her laughter sounded like freedom.
There were few worries in her world. Yes, she worked hard, for little money, and the world was rarely kind to a woman alone. But her children were with her, and that was the only dream that had ever mattered.
That dream, though, would soon be shattered by the children she had sacrificed everything for. Nine years after she left El Salvador, two of her sons were behind bars; at one point in 1996, her four oldest were incarcerated.
Roberto, her firstborn, was destined to break her heart. He spent most of his life behind bars in El Salvador and California. He was deported to El Salvador in 1989, where he was presumed murdered ten years later, his body never found.
Gabriel, then 16, was arrested in 1992 and received a 29-years-to-life sentence for gang-related murder
and attempted murder.
In 1995, three days after my 19th birthday, I was arrested for attempted murder, for which I eventually pled guilty and received 13 years plus seven-to-life. And, if my transgressions weren’t bad enough, I decided to drag my brother down as well. Marcus was arrested in 1996 after I persuaded him to smuggle contraband into the county jail.
Today, Gabriel and I are still incarcerated.
People who don’t know better might blame our mother for her children’s sins, and she certainly suffered the consequences. In truth, she bore no responsibility for our crimes. She has always been the personification of honesty, perseverance, and faith. Her children could have had no better example to follow. Yet the effect of having children behind bars took a tremendous toll on her. She developed high blood pressure and anxiety; she lost weight not being able to eat or sleep for months at a time. She also endured resemble a studio apartment.
And then they waited, until at last they were brought together.
Those first minutes were agonizing. My mother cried and cried, as my brother tried valiantly — though unsuccessfully — to hold back tears of his own. The longing to hold her child was over, if only for a fleeting couple of days.
My mother took note of small, simple things about my brother, like how Gabriel was unsure of himself around little Babushka, a territorial pug-Chihuahua mix who grumbled every time he got close to Grandma.
Gabriel had liked to cook since he was a kid, and appointed himself chef for the three-day visit. He had a peculiar way of preparing food, Mom said, mixing everything together. Beans and rice, salmon or steak; his philosophy was that everything ends up at the same destination.
They stayed up until 3:00 in the morning that first night, talking about childhood adventures and the things Gabriel missed: walking our old dog, Clyde, going to the park to play basketball, and being home with family.
That visit reignited a faint glimmer of hope in my mother’s heart, the hope that she would one day have her broken and fragmented family back together again.
That hope is slowly inching forward.
After serving 32 years, Gabriel was found suitable for parole. Mom and Lala again made the trek to Salinas Valley in October, 2022, intending to pick him up at the prison gate. Instead, she was turned away after being informed that Gabriel had been taken into custody by Immigration agents. He is not free yet, as he faces the threat of deportation. He is like a man withering away from starvation and standing before a banquet, unable to reach out a take a single bite.
The day is swiftly approaching when I will be the only son behind bars. I am happy for my brother’s coming freedom, and I have the highest of hopes for his future. As his little brother, I have long followed in his footsteps; now I await my turn to come home as well.
A HISTORY OF
Overnight family visits were first introduced to California prisoners in 1974. Sometimes referred to as conjugal visits, they are available to prisoners’ spouses, children and other immediate family members. At San Quentin, visitors arrive around 8:00 in the morning and spend the next two nights in spartan yet homelike surroundings.
The California Department of Corrections and
Rehabilitation provides overnight family visiting to help foster and maintain family ties. Without these intimate visits, a prisoner’s culture and familial bonds can be lost forever. But per CDCR regulations, family contact is not a right — it’s a privilege.
In 1996, Gov. Pete Wilson stripped this privilege from prisoners serving life sentences. After a 20-year hiatus, the program was reinstated under Gov. Jerry Brown in 2016, though CDCR policy still excludes certain prisoners, including
those convicted of violent offenses against a minor or family member, domestic violence, or
any sexual offense.
—Edwin E. Chavez
My first family visit with Mom and Lala came in July 2019. I had not seen them since my departure from San Diego’s R. J. Donovan Correctional Facility the year before, and we hadn’t been alone as a family since my arrest.
First to arrive at the family visiting unit, I nearly went into shock. There were two bedrooms, a kitchen with a stove and refrigerator, fresh food purchased and delivered by an outside vendor. There was a 32-inch television mounted on the wall, a DVD player for movies, even a private bathroom with a shower.
I don’t know what I’d expected, but I arrived at a realization most people might not understand: That our very humanity, the core of our humanness, can be altered or diminished by our environment, by the conditions we are forced to endure. By then, I had lived in monastic prison cells for nearly three decades. I had only vague recollections of private bathrooms and showers. I remember walking into the family unit, seeing the sofas and the huge TV, and mumbling aloud, “I screwed up big-time. Is this what it feels like to have a nice place of your own?” I sat helpless and alone on the sofa and cried like a baby.
I had been laboring to better myself for years by then, earning several college degrees and enrolling in self-help programs. I was already committed to turning my life around.
But in that moment, I was struck with clarity like never before: I had betrayed my mother’s love. She had worked tirelessly to give her children a future, and I destroyed that dream. I knew the struggles that my mother had to endure just to see me, the hundreds of miles she had to travel, the financial cost she had to bear. The guilt and shame of bringing my mother and grandmother inside a prison overwhelmed me, and though I was able to recover before my visitors arrived, those powerful thoughts and emotions remained.
Seeing the three of them for the first time — my mother, Lala, little Babushka — was like a temporary ticket out of prison. I imagined we were on a picnic somewhere. Like a curious child, I got close to Babushka; it had been so long since I’d even seen a dog, I wanted to smell her. She had that singular animal scent, like she had been baking in the sun, rolling in the grass, wrestling with other dogs. It was wonderful.
I was embarrassed not knowing how to operate a microwave, or how to set the stove dial.
Trying to operate a modern TV and DVD player was challenging without a remote control; I couldn’t even figure out how to turn it on. I was trapped in my own version of Back to the Future.
Later, I tried to scramble eggs, with disastrous results. While I was cooking, Babushka ran out of the room and went out to relieve herself. I panicked and ran after her, leaving the food on the stove. The smell of something burning woke my mother from her nap, and at the ripe old age of 43, I felt like a
small child about to be scolded.
But I had brought my MP3 player. I plugged it into the stereo and played some music from my youth. We listened to the late Rocio Durcal, a famous Spanish singer from the 1980s and ’90s. My mother and grandma immediately recognized the music, and we were transported to a different place in time.
Alone, with no guards hovering over us, no other prisoners crowded elbow-to-elbow, I found the courage to open up to my mother, to confess a traumatic secret I’d carried all my life: At nine years old, with civil war raging across El Salvador, I was kidnapped and raped by rebels, left for dead in the cornfields. By some miracle, a farmer discovered my unconscious body lying on the ground, still bound and bleeding. I
survived but never spoke a word about it until 2019.
My family is aging. My mother is 68; my grandmother is 90. Though nothing would stand in my mother’s way if she had a choice, the distance and their health could soon prevent them both from traveling. The deadly coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc on San Quentin, causing repeated quarantines. In all of 2022, I got to see my mother once, and I fear the day she won’t be able to come at all. She said as long as God gives her the ability, nothing will prevent her seeing me; that if she was not able to hold her son, to talk with me in person, it would devastate her.
Lala is now suffering from dementia and was recently hospitalized after her blood pressure plummeted, causing her to fall. She just sent me a heartbreaking birthday card with a message that ripped a hole in my chest: I don’t want to die until you come home to be with us.
Despite her relentless positivity and her refusal to complain, I know logging thousands of miles to visit her sons has not been easy on my mother. Each facility has different practices, different officers and different cultures. In her experience, the guards at Salinas Valley conducted themselves with respect and professionalism, allowing my mother and grandmother to maintain some measure of dignity throughout a distinctly undignified process.
Her experience at San Quentin has been less favorable, she said. Due to arbitrary enforcement of ambiguous policies, she was not allowed to bring a hairbrush, personal underwear, even a bar of soap. They regularly process her and Lala very late, past noon at times, and the visits last only two nights, compared to three at Salinas Valley. It’s also a much longer drive from her house in Sun City — 10 hours each way — to spend less than 48 hours with me.
Nonetheless , overnight family visits are a powerful force for restoring family and community connections. Prison is a lonely and desolate place, and this kind of connection motivates incarcerated people to rehabilitate themselves, to pursue an education and self-help programs, to come home a better person. That very first overnight visit staggered me with a powerful and unexpected understanding of the impact my criminality had on my own family. These visits have helped me grow as a person, to appreciate my family more than ever, and given me the strength to stay focused and not give up.
Overnight family visits with loved ones are a valuable component of prisoners’ rehabilitation; they facilitate strengthened bonds between husbands and wives, parents and children, prisoners and the world outside. If maintaining familial bonds is indeed one of CDCR’s top priorities, family visits should be encouraged for every prisoner.
If family visits should ever be discontinued, it would mean the end of an era that brought me closer to a mother I was often separated from, and brought healing to us both. It gave me the strength of character to reveal to her a crippling childhood trauma. Over time, it’s given me the chance to really understand and appreciate life’s struggles, and how this quiet but powerful lady never stopped loving me.
Compared to others in prison who are disconnected from their families, I know I am blessed. My mother is a living, breathing superhero. A cape over her shoulders couldn’t add to this woman’s power. I will ever be awestruck by her perseverance, and the incredible, limitless love of this small woman for her children.