People, Profiles

Best Father's Day gift? For dads in prison, it's Get on the Bus

By Gretchen Kell

Father and son at 2013 California Men’s Colony Father’s Day event. (photo by Sister Teresa Lynch)

Father and son at 2013 California Men’s Colony Father’s Day event. (photo by Sister Teresa Lynch)

Spending Father’s Day in prison might sound grim, but dozens of Bay Area youngsters and their incarcerated dads can’t wait to be reunited this weekend in Soledad. They will spend four hours together hugging, talking, eating and playing games through a statewide program called Get on the Bus, which considers UC Berkeley “a flagship” among California schools for the dedication of its student volunteers.

Every Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, Get on the Bus provides free transportation to California prisons for hundreds of children and their caregivers in an effort to keep families separated by crime intact.  UC Berkeley students not only accompany the children to prison, but raise more than $4,000 a year to sponsor bus trips, help families prepare their paperwork, and run a class on campus about the prison system’s effects on the family.

“These visits help parents and kids get important questions answered, like ‘Am I still loved? Do I still matter?’” said UC Berkeley alumna Alayna Johnson, the Northern California regional coordinator for Get on the Bus. “A four-hour visit may not seem like much to the general population, but those four hours mean everything to these families. If they didn’t, people wouldn’t ride a bus for up to 10 hours one way, just for that precious time.”

UC Berkeley junior Julie McCormick knows firsthand how important it is for kids to stay connected to their parents behind bars. During her K-12 years, her mother served three different sentences. Traveling hours to prison was expensive for the family, as were the rates for prison phone calls.

“I tried to treat Mother’s Day like any other day, or just block it from my memory completely,” said McCormick, who is a Get on the Bus volunteer. “I went through practically my entire childhood, and over half my life, without her.”

Forty percent of inmates never get a visit in prison, said Johnson. If they did, she added, research shows their chances of relapsing into crime would drop, and their children would be more emotionally and socially adjusted, and less likely to commit crimes.

A flagship campus for this work

UC Berkeley students are so serious about this issue that, in 2011, they began a Get on the Bus class on campus. It is one of many DeCal (Democratic Education at Cal) courses, which are pass/no pass, initiated by students and sponsored by faculty.  The class hosts trips on Mother’s Day trip to the California Institution for Women in Corona and on Father’s Day visit to Soledad’s Correctional Training Facility and Salinas Valley State Prison. The 16 students in last year’s class also toured San Quentin State Prison.

“Our Get on the Bus students go beyond typical volunteerism to having a holistic understanding of the issue, and developing true empathy for the people they serve. It really helps to humanize the issue for the student volunteers.,” said recent UC Berkeley graduate Rahkii Holman, who taught the 2012-13 course. McCormick will help teach the course that begins in the fall.

Katherine Culpepper, executive director of the Center for Restorative Justice Works, a non-profit based in Southern California that runs Get on the Bus, said many college students are Get on the Bus volunteers, but that UC Berkeley “is our flagship for what we’d love other colleges and universities to do.”

“Its approach, with the educational component of a class to teach how incarceration affects the family, goes further than any other effort by our 1,000 Get on Bus volunteers,” she said. “This is important work, and we can realistically expect that these Berkeley students will be informed and effective advocates for this cause for decades to come.”

drawing on wall

Chalk drawing by an incarcerated mom for a 2013 Mother’s Day event at Folsom Women’s Facility. (photo by alumna Diana Recouvreur)

Lasting results

To get a visit from loved ones, inmates send the statewide Get on the Bus a request, and the organization then uses volunteers like the UC Berkeley students to contact the prisoners’ children or their guardians. “We don’t push anybody to make the trip, but we do try to explain the benefits of it,” said Johnson. “Family visits helps people in prison stay connected to the outside world and give them something beyond prison to live for. And keeping families together helps everyone.”

Citing statistics from the Federal Bureau of Corrections, she said many prisoners are at least 100 miles from home. She added that, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a public policy think tank, prisoners do not have access to reasonably priced interstate telephone service, and this discourages inmates from staying in touch with loved ones.

This Saturday, at the Fruitvale BART stop in Oakland, Get on the Bus volunteers will meet families, give them pillows, blankets and snacks for the bus ride, then provide breakfast upon arrival at the prison and a lunch party with games and arts and crafts. On the ride home, each child will receive a teddy bear, accompanied by a letter from his or her parent, and stationery and stamps to foster future letter-writing.

“We make it a kid-friendly visit,” said Johnson, who added that inmates often put on their “best prison blues” to meet their children.

Holman, who will be on the Father’s Day bus, said he glimpsed the true meaning of Get on the Bus at a prison event in Vacaville. After waiting anxiously for their father to enter the visiting room , he said a young brother and sister “ran up to him and grabbed him and hugged him while they all cried for about the next hour and a half. I really choked up when I saw that and had to hold back tears myself. That’s when I knew this program was for me.”

McCormick’s mother, who asked not to be identified by name, said she wishes the Get on the Bus program had been available when she was an inmate. “It fills and strengthens the bond between moms and dads and their kids,” she said. “The children deserve to see their parents, and the results are amazing.”

Culpepper said Get on the Bus currently is working to increase the number of times children can visit their fathers or mothers in prison each year, beyond Mother’s and Father’s days. Buses leave from major cities throughout California for prisons in Chowchilla, Corona, San Luis Obispo, Solano, San Quentin, Folsom and Soledad.