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By Elizabeth Fernandez ’79
More than half the women in California prisons are mothers. Some go months or even years without seeing their children. But with a bus service dubbed the Chowchilla Family Express, Eric DeBode ’88 is trying to change that.
With dawn still an hour away, the bus speeds south through the Central Valley. A DVD of a cartoon plays on a television monitor, but few of the dozens of passengers aboard are watching. Instead they pensively sip coffee, or they sleep, draped in blankets and scrunched into seats.
Their bus left Sacramento at 4 a.m., pausing several times to pick up riders in towns along Highway 99: Stockton, Manteca, Modesto. Two other buses departed even earlier—one took off from south Los Angeles at 3 a.m., another left Redding just after midnight. Destination for all three buses: a prison complex in Chowchilla that houses more than 8,000 women, the nation’s largest concentration of female prisoners. Waiting there are the mothers and sisters, wives and daughters of the bus riders. For some, it’s been years since they’ve seen one another.
It is Palm Sunday, and it’s the first anniversary of the Chowchilla Family Express, an innovative program that connects inmates with their children and loved ones outside prison. Begun in March 2007 by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in partnership with the Center for Restorative Justice Works (CRJW), the Family Express is the first state-funded program of its kind. Operating on a $400,000 annual budget, which covers the costs of chartering six buses per month on average from various points in the state, the program has reunited more than 2,400 passengers with family members at Chowchilla’s two women’s prisons. The prisons are located in Madera County, near the intersection of Highway 99 and Highway 152—about 150 miles from San Francisco, and more than 250 miles from Los Angeles.
An estimated 200,000 children in California have a parent in prison, but largely because of economic and logistical difficulties they rarely see each other. “Prisons for the most part aren’t in easily accessible places,” says Eric DeBode ’88, executive director of the Express. DeBode is in his mid-40s and lives in Oak View, 90 minutes from Los Angeles. He is also a former Jesuit who has, over the years, worked with the homeless and with troubled youth.
“Visitation programs are a cost-effective crime prevention tool,” he says. “By helping to maintain family bonds, the Chowchilla Family Express will help parents and children stay together and hopefully reduce the likelihood of people re-offending—and that’s good for everyone.”
State prison officials concur that the program is fostering critical familial bonds, enabling mothers—despite their incarceration—to play positive roles in their children’s lives.
Despite the early hour, the Elks Lodge on West Sixth Street is bustling. There is freshly cooked bacon, eggs, coffee, and an open-arms welcome from Grandmothers of the Light.
“Restrooms are on the left,” volunteers say, helpfully directing sleepy bus riders around the building.
A private nonprofit organization, Grandmothers of the Light was established to help the families of incarcerated women in California. Funded entirely by donations, the group also provides Family Express riders with travel bags of amenities. On this day, a table is piled with blankets and pillows. Another table offers stuffed bunnies and other toys.
“This is lovely,” says Tamarasha Bolling, 21, sifting through a goodybag of blankets, pillows, coloring books, notepads. “I thought we’d just come in here and eat pancakes. Our arms are loaded!”
Riding with her cousin, Bolling is making her second trip on the Family Express. A Sacramento resident, she’s visiting her aunt, imprisoned since 2005. “We wouldn’t be able to make it ourselves to see her. A lot of people can’t afford the trip,” she says. “I’d come every day if I could, it means so much to my aunt. When she first saw us, it was like she’d won a million dollars.”
As bus riders eat sweet rolls and strawberries, DeBode speaks into a microphone.“I love this program,” he says. “You get up ungodly early; we want you to know how important you are. You bring healing and hope and the possibility of a bright new future. We are so happy you can deepen your relationships with your families.”
DeBode then hands out “frequent flier” awards. One goes to Diane Bates, 68, for traveling the farthest—she spent six hours riding a Greyhound bus from her Oregon home in order to meet the Family Express bus in Redding.
Another award goes to the bus program’s “number one bus rider,” Mya Williams. She’s just 5 years old. The pint-size road warrior has been a Family Express passenger 14 times, traveling from her home in Ontario, Calif., with her grandmother or her grandfather, or sometimes both to visit her aunt, Latasha, incarcerated since 2005.
“We have a special present for you,” DeBode tells the beaming youngster. He presents her with a green backpack.
“We’ve ridden the bus since it started,” says Mya’s grandmother, Linda Williams. “It lets my daughter know we love her and we support her. When my daughter was in county jail, we’d bring Mya—but the only relationship they could have was through a glass window. Now, because of the bus program, they are able to visit and touch each other. It’s very emotional.”
Though the journey is long, taking about five hours each way, Mya is a patient, seasoned traveler. She sleeps, plays with other children, colors in the activity books that her grandmother brings. She’s even learned some of the ABCs aboard the Family Express.
“Mya met her future husband on the bus, a little boy,” says Williams, laughing. “She says she loves him.”
After a rousing round of “Happy Birthday” to commemorate the first anniversary of the Express, it’s time to get back on the bus.
“My mother is my lighthouse.”
Just before 9 a.m., the buses pull into the parking lot of Valley State Prison for Women. Housing some 3,800 inmates, the dune-colored San Joaquin Valley facility is one of the largest women’s prisons in the world.
The excited bus riders spend the next hour being processed—undergoing security checks and getting ultraviolet stamps on their hands that will later permit passage out of the prison. After passing through a locked barbed-wire enclosure, the travelers then walk through the prison’s main yard and into one of two visiting rooms. There, sitting on brown chairs at brown tables, they spend the next five hours.
The rooms are large and loud, filled with the sounds of laughter and love. Vending machines steadily dispense candy and other snacks.
Diane Bates, the devoted Oregon mother, sits holding the hand of her daughter, Jennifer Fletcher, 38. When they take a stroll around the room, mother and daughter walk with their arms wrapped around the other’s waist.
“My daughter and I are very very close,” Bates says. “She’s been my joy my whole life.”
Fletcher is a “long-termer,” incarcerated for six years. “This is a really intense place,” she says. “It’s really hard to be here. My mother is my lighthouse, a beacon of light.”
She begins to weep.
“These are tears of joy,” Fletcher says, smiling and vainly dabbing at her cheeks. “This last week was so wonderful, so full of anticipation. Last night when I went to bed I couldn’t sleep.”
Some of the prisoners have been convicted of violent crimes—from carjacking to murder. Many are in for drug-related offenses; others are here for less serious offenses, like forgery. But the reasons that led to incarceration are generally not the topic of conversation this day—that’s not the point of these visits.
A smiling DeBode moves from table to table, chatting and offering cupcakes. The treats along with t-shirts were supplied by the Center for Restorative Justice Works to commemorate the Family Express’s first anniversary.
Break the cycle
The Family Express is modeled on a program launched in California in 2000 called Get on the Bus, which began by bringing seven children to visit their mothers in prison on Mother’s Day. Now Get on the Bus brings hundreds of family members together on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. The Family Express took that good idea and has made it work year-round.
“What is going on in the visiting room touches all of us,” says Wendy Still. As associate director for female offender programs and services with the Department of Corrections, Still in essence is the godmother of the Family Express, shepherding it through state channels. She rode one of the buses to commemorate the program’s successful first year.
“This is exactly what the rehabilitation part of our mission looks like,” she says. “Our goal is to help people re-enter society, and to break the intergenerational cycle of incarceration.”
Valley State’s warden, Tina Hornbeak, is an equally ardent supporter.
“I know what it feels like to have a child on your lap, to hug and smell and touch him,” says Hornbeak, mother of a 5-year-old. “It is really important for the children to know that they still have a mother who loves them. And the bonding helps the women get through their days and their weeks. It gives them hope. For those who won’t get out for a long time, it helps them be a part of their children’s lives.”
Tracy Jones, 45, is one of those. She has already served 14 years of a life sentence. She spends most of the visiting hours cuddling her two little granddaughters, brought to the prison by their mother, Paulina.
“Are you the princess? And are you the queen?” she asks the girls as their faces increasingly become smeared with chocolate cupcake. “Grandma loves you.”
A mother of three, Jones cherishes each moment of the visit. She says the memories linger long past the departure of the visitors. “I didn’t get to see my children for seven years. All of my cellmates would leave the room on visiting days. During the holidays it was really, really hard. When I know my daughter’s coming, it means a lot. It helps me keep communicating with her and my grandkids. It keeps your hopes up. It makes you feel like you are out of the prison world for a while.”
In addition to seeing the pragmatic value of the Family Express, DeBode feels the project is both a matter of duty and an expression of faith. “We are called to look around us and to have a positive, life-giving relationship with those who are struggling,” he says. “You have to make common cause with people who are homeless, who are sick or suffering. In that, you will know Jesus and the Cross. And on a good day, you just might glimpse the resurrection.”
Elizabeth Fernandez ’79 is a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Learn more about the Chowchilla Family Express.