Bus program helps children across state

Kelly Sorell is reunited with her daughter, Kaitlyn.
Kelly Sorell is reunited with her daughter, Kaitlyn.

Get on the Bus enables children to visit incarcerated parents

More than 1,000 children got to celebrate Mother’s Day and Father’s Day with their incarcerated parents, thanks to a team of volunteers who make sure families stay connected.

“It’s about the kids,” said Jacquiline Wagner of Holy Family Church. “The kids have done nothing wrong in this, and it’s our duty to help children. It’s the right thing to do – they deserve to see their parents.”

Wagner is a coordinator for Get On The Bus (GOTB), a program of the Center for Restorative Justice Works (CRJW) that provides free transportation for children and a caregiver to visit their incarcerated parents.

This year, 1,100 children visited their parents at the following institutions:

  • California Institution for Women (CIW)
  • Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF)
  • Folsom Women’s Facility (FWF)
  • Correctional Training Facility
  • Salinas Valley State Prison
  • California Men’s Colony
  • Valley State Prison (VSP)
  • San Quentin State Prison
  • Folsom State Prison (FSP)
  • California State Prison, Sacramento (SAC)

Grateful for volunteers

“I thank God for these people, because it’s something they don’t have to do,” said Sparkle Harris as she played with her four children at CCWF. “To take their time out to do it, it just goes to show what type of people they are, and I appreciate it.”

It is a big effort for volunteers to work with families to ensure all the paperwork is in order before the visits. They also ride the buses to and from prisons throughout the state and facilitate family-friendly activities. CDCR staff works for months beforehand to schedule the parents, process security clearances and ensure space and staffing. They do it with pride, as keeping family ties strong is a vital part of an offender’s rehabilitation.

“Education, job training, professional development, higher self-esteem and family reunification continue to be the focal point and the mission of CCWF,” said Warden Deborah K. Johnson. “Family reunification is huge. If they don’t make that connection while they’re here, then they cannot have a successful reunification once they leave. That is our philosophy.”

Family centered program

Down the road from CCWF, inmates at VSP spent an early Father’s Day in May with their children. Donald Cornelius Gandy’s daughter, Tajanique, traveled overnight from Riverside County to see her dad. They both said they appreciated how family-centered GOTB is.

“It’s a moment of heaven,” Gandy said. “I’m experiencing a moment of heaven, because only through the GOTB environment are we able to have these types of real, intimate connections.”

Indeed, GOTB facilitators make sure all involved are comfortable, from the bus ride there to the long ride home. In addition to CRJW volunteers, several churches near state prisons make breakfast for the visitors. Throughout the visits, volunteers provide family activities such as games, face painting and family portraits. Each child is sent home with a teddy bear and a letter from his or her parent.

Inmates must maintain good behavior in order to participate in the program. For many, seeing their family is just the incentive they need to stay on the right track.

“It keeps me motivated to really stay focused on doing what I’ve got to do to get out,” shared Carlos Smith, who was reunited with his son, daughter and two grandsons at San Quentin. “It’s important that family is maintained, whether in prison or out.”

Jose Sandoval spends the day with his family at Folsom State Prison.
Jose Sandoval spends the day with his family at Folsom State Prison.

Bishop O’Connell joins visits

This year’s visits to FSP, FWF and SAC were made particularly meaningful by the presence of Bishop David O’Connell, Episcopal Vicar of the San Gabriel Pastoral Region of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. When he learned of the work GOTB is doing, he decided to attend the final visits of the year. He got on the bus himself, riding overnight from Southern California.

“Whenever I see people helping children like this, I want to help,” O’Connell said. “I want to support them and be part of it and do whatever I can. I really admire what Get On The Bus is doing in providing a support network for these kids who may have been feeling abandoned.”

O’Connell visited each of the three Folsom facilities, speaking with families, volunteers and staff. He said he was moved by the men and women who shared their stories, particularly by families left at home still working to keep their connections. He chuckled as he shared how one inmate told him how he told a friend how guilty he felt because he isn’t a dad anymore, and his friend told him no, he’s still a father, even in prison.

“I said, ‘My God, that’s exactly what I say to guys in the parish as a priest,’” O’Connell laughed. “I say that even if you’re divorced from mom, if you’re in different states, different countries, even when you’re in prison, do your best to be a dad to your child.”

Get on the Bus helps children see parents in prison

Children of all ages take part in GOTB each year, from newborn babies to grown sons and daughters. Kaitlyn Sorell, 22, traveled from Palmdale to visit her mom, Kelly Sorell, at CCWF.

The pair were so excited to see one another, they finished each other’s sentences. They this was the first time they had gotten to touch in 12 years. Kelly Sorell had not been allowed contact visits in the 11 years she spent in county jail.

Now that she’s at CCWF, she is looking toward her future, which includes staying positive and re-bonding with her daughter.

“This can be a very negative environment, but by the same token it is what you make of it,” she mused. “If you remove yourself from the negative and just do the best you can to make it a good environment for yourself, it can work.”

Amalia Molina, executive director of CRJW, said it costs half a million dollars annually to provide visits for the children, funds raised through grants and private donations. GOTB is now an Innovative Grant Program recipient, meaning CDCR will fund the program’s expansion into  another prison, High Desert State Prison in Susanville, next year.

Children prison bus program going for nearly two decades

GOTB began 16 years ago at CCWF, when Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet Suzanne Steffen and Susan Jasbro visited Chowchilla to see how they might be of service to the inmates.

“They expected the women would complain about the facility, the food,” Molina said. “The nuns said, ‘What do you want us to do for you?’ All of them said: ‘We want to see our children.’”

The ripple effects of GOTB are seen not only in the smiles on the children’s faces and the parents’ uplifted moods. The rest of the population picks up on the positive vibe as well, even going so far as to decorate the night before the event. Terah Lawyer is not a mother, but she spent a Saturday helping organize the goody bag station at CCWF. She reflected on how important events like this are to helping ensure offenders don’t return to prison.

“A life of crime basically shatters communities, and it hurts so many people,” she said. “(Watching these women), filled with shame and guilt, connect with their children, helps them reinforce the meaning of what’s important. (It’s about them) getting help, getting therapy, rehabilitating themselves. (It’s about them) pursuing their educational goals, and pushing forward to make a better example for their children.”

Story and photos by Krissi Khokhobashvili, PIO II

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