Our church helps to sponsor a program called Get on the Bus. The program bring kids to visit their mothers in prison on the Friday before Mother’s Day every year. I help out by sponsoring a family, which means I meet with a family who wants to go and make sure they fill out the visitor form to get approval and have all the proper documents. One of the other family’s guardian is not approved so the 11 year old boy needs someone to accompany him for the visit, I volunteer to go on the bus with Byron. There is a strict dress code for visitors, you cannot wear certain colors, especially any type of blue. I’m told the best color to wear is black. All the volunteers and kids are given purple ‘Get on the Bus’ tshirts and the kids our church sponsors are given black sweatpants to make it easier to get inside the prison.
So it was about a 2 ½ hour bus ride to the prison and we arrive around 8:30 in the morning. I was reading online and the VSPW (Valley State Prison for Women) is one of the largest women's prisons in the world, they have several thousand inmates. There are so many women inmates, they cleared out the men's prison down the street and have turned it into a women's prison as well. As we were arriving, we had to fill out a form stating who we were and minors coming with us. We had to check off what we were bringing with us, such as jackets, jewelry, glasses, etc. Really, the only thing you can bring in is money (up to $50 for adults in dollar bills and quarters) in a clear bag. So we get checked off and are given a ticket, then they wanded us to make sure we weren't carrying anything in our pockets, etc. We went through a metal detector then outside where there is a series of gates. We have to stand and wait for the gate to open, we walk through and then have to wait at the 2nd gate. After that we are on the prison grounds and can walk over to the visitor center
After we go in the visitor center, we have to check in at the desk and they tell us which room to go to. There are 2 large rooms, one which allows media coverage, the other does not. Byron is meeting his mother in the media room to the left. He knows exactly where to go, this is his 4th trip on the Get on the Bus program, he shows me the ropes. His mother is waiting for him, I go to the desk at the head of the room, where 2 guards are standing and have to turn the ticket over. We will need to check out at the desk when we leave. I go meet Byron’s mother, Gale. Her mother passed to me $20 in one dollar bills and quarters for her, but Gale cannot touch it, I have to use the money for her at the vending machines. Gale is very friendly, she introduced me to her ‘co-defendant’ whose family was also on the bus. She also introduced me to one of her roommates, Bobby, whose son came to visit from another part of the state. Several of the families from Bakersfield know each other from previous trips and the inmates know each other.
The first order of business for Byron and his mother is to buy snacks from the vending machines, this is a special treat for his mother. In the other visiting room, we learn an outside vendor is selling food, 6 hot wings for $6, small order of onion rings for $3, slice of cheesecake for $4. Byron’s mom asks me to go over and buy her a hot wings and onion rings, this is also a special treat for them. Byron goes with me and he buys cheesecake with his money. I know Byron and mom want to talk and spend time, so I walk around to take everything in. Some inmate volunteers have set up a face painting table for the kids, which is free and in the children’s room, they take pictures of the families with a polaroid camera. By the visiting room, there is a small outdoor area where some kids go to run around and some families visit. It is a gorgeous day outside, sunny, cool in the morning, warm in the afternoon.
Back to the children’s room… In each visiting section, there is a small room labeled children’s room, I think where the smaller children can go and play with some toys. The rest of the visiting room is layed out like a cafeteria with numbered round tables. About 2 weeks ago, the children’s room was painted to look like a jungle, it is beautiful and was done completely freehand by an inmate. The children’s room in the other visiting section is painted like an ocean with fish, octopus and the like.
I am free to go between the visiting rooms but a guard stands at each door to let us in and out. Since the vending machines were broken in our visiting room, I go with Byron to the other side to buy snacks. Fortunately someone later comes and fixes the broken vending machines. I talk with Gale a little and she tells me a little about the jobs the inmates can have. She says she has her refrigerator license now and now for the past 2 years she has been making glasses for the ‘free world doctors’. She earns money for doing this job, she likes this job.
I also sit with another family who is visiting Valerie, she is mother to 4 children. Three of them, a 7 year old boy, 8 year old girl and 11 year old girl came with her grandmother who they live with. Her 15 year old daughter who lives with her father’s mother was not allowed to come for the visit by her grandmother. Gloria,Valerie’s grandmother, says Valerie has been in and out of prison, the first time was for 6 years. Gloria tells me once they are in the system, it’s hard to get out. When Valerie was out, she made another stupid mistake and had to go back in for 6 months. She has only a few months left on the latest violation so Valerie has told her children she is coming home in September, but Gloria tells me she has another case pending. She is not happy with her making promises all the time that she cannot keep.
Valerie is very hyper and cannot sit still or stay focused, I can’t help but wonder to myself if she could be on drugs. When it’s lunch time, hot dogs, chips and sodas are provided for the families and volunteers. I sit with Valerie’s family who also brought me a hot dog, her family holds hands as I join in as well and one of the girls says a prayer. Then Valerie’s son, Michael, asks if she is a Christian, she says, yes, I have come to God and she doesn’t know what it is, but she feels Him in her. Michael says “Finally! She is a Christian!” The kids sing some Christian songs, I can see tears well up in Valerie’s eyes, she is so proud. They start reciting Bible verses they have memorized and Valerie is hugging on her kids. Gloria is a bit stoic, she knows Valerie makes promises she can’t keep. Valerie says a group called Daystar came to visit from Texas and turned her towards God.
Soon they start calling off buses, it’s sooner than they expected. Somehow the moms thought the kids were staying until 3, it is only 1pm. I tell Gale that we are expected to leave at 1:30pm. As the buses are announced, the visitors have to go check out at the desk and receive their ticket. Our bus is announced at 1:30pm, I go to the desk to checkout, but the guard tells me I have to have Byron and his mom with me, she has to leave the room before we can be dismissed. Gale is outside taking last minute pictures with friends and family. She and Byron come in to the desk and they say goodbye, she thanks me and gives me a hug.
Before the bus leaves Chowchilla, every child receives a personalized blanket wrapped around a stuffed animal. Several of the children receive letters from their mother. Most of the people go to sleep on the way home. I’m glad I was able to go, I’m touched by the circumstances these children live in. I cannot imagine being away from my kids for so long. I also worry about these kids and hope they do not make the same mistakes their mothers have. I wish I could show them there is another way to live.
Video footage from our local media