Mon May 12th, 2008 at 03:24:24 AM EST
"I've been actually able to see my mom and tell her how much I love her and how much I miss her."
Jada Pointer's tummy ache was cured with a smile.
It was the perfect smile: her mom's. The 9-year-old from Perris hadn't seen that comforting smile in more than a year.
Nine-year-old Albert Gonzalez held onto his mother's long hair like it was his lifeline. The boy from San Bernardino twisted it, tasted it, tangled it through his fingers and plucked a strand or two to save for later.
"I need it, Mommy," he said, gripping a strand in his hand. "I need it to take home."
These are the stories of the kids who take the annual Mother's Day bus ride to visit their moms in California's prisons.
Brought across by afew
For many, Friday's trip would be the only time they see their mothers this year. Some hadn't seen their mothers since birth.
Jada, a fourth-grader who is sensitive and eager to please, was not the only child whose stomach was tied up in knots.
Many skipped sleep the night before or awoke at 2 a.m. to be on the bus from Perris by 5 a.m. Of the 18 children on Jada's bus, one came alone, one came with his aunt and the rest were accompanied by the grandmothers who raise them. The youngest were the most carefree and eager to join games organized by volunteers on the bus. Some of the older children and first-time visitors were more pensive, quietly looking out their windows at the mountains and the Mojave dessert.
For their 17-hour trip, they got to spend roughly three hours visiting with their mothers in the prison visiting rooms and yards.
The visits are organized by the volunteer program, Get On The Bus, which was founded by Sister Suzanne Jabro of the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The program seems to be largely run by nuns, concerned about poverty and distance keeping children from being able to visit their moms. The first trip in 2000 took 7 children. This year's trip carried over 600.
He calls himself a mama's boy, but 17-year-old Joshua Temple, of Hemet, has only seen his mother three times in the past six years.
He was with his mom when the police came to take her away. He was in the kitchen baking cookies with her when he heard the pounding on the door. He was only 11, but he knew that pounding meant the police were coming.
The Nation reports that over 200,000 women are incarcerated in the US and that approximately 80 percent of them are mothers. Almost 90 percent of these prisoners are in for non-violent drug offenses.
Guanipa spent the last ten and a half years locked in federal penitentiaries in Florida, locked away from her Miami community, her extended family and two young boys.
Her offense: She agreed to pick up a sealed package for a friend, which turned out to contain cocaine. Although Guanipa had never been arrested before--and had never been a drug user--she was hit with a thirteen-year "drug conspiracy" prison sentence on par with a sentence that a major drug trafficker would have received. Guanipa's good standing in the community, her lack of criminal background and the fact that she had a 1-year-old and a 2-year old had no impact on her sentence.
In California, according to a report prepared in 2000 (pdf link), an estimated 856,000 children had a parent "currently involved in California's adult criminal justice system, nearly nine percent of the state's children."
The 2000 report goes on to say that, in California, there is no state agency that tracks these children and that "the police and courts do not regularly inquire at the time of arrest or sentencing whether a prisoner has children."
Tania Borje beamed at her oldest, 12-year-old Jose, who excels in school and plans to become a wildlife biologist.
She held his cheeks, looked into his eyes and told him it wouldn't matter what others said about her being in prison.
"Life is not always perfect, but we love each other and we are family," she told him. She reminded him to have the courage to do what is right and help other people when he can.
He hung on her every word.
When released, the mothers who have been convicted of drug offenses will be ineligible for food stamps and other public assistance, including public housing.
"My heart just goes out to the children," said area coordinator Nancy Turk in Visalia this week. "They haven't committed any crimes. But without a doubt, they pay the highest price."