The National Catholic Review
Kelly Kester-Smith

On the Friday morning just before Mother’s Day, a group of children and caretakers board a chartered bus in a South Central Los Angeles neighborhood. One expects to hear a free-spirited ruckus, but the mood on the bus is oddly quiet and contemplative. These children are not, as one might guess, embarking on a classroom field trip. They are instead beginning a 12-hour journey to visit their mothers—all of whom are incarcerated. The bus is traveling to Chowchilla, the rural locale of the Central California Women’s Facility and the Valley State Prison for Women.

According to Department of Justice studies, approximately 75 percent of incarcerated women are mothers; an additional 6 percent enter prison pregnant. More than half of these women report committing their offense under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Though no one knows exactly how many children have an incarcerated parent, estimates suggest that more than two million children share this experience. About half of these children live with grandparents, while the others live with family and friends or become wards of the foster care system.

Sister Suzanne Steffen, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, learned of the plight of these children through her ministry with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’s Department of Detention Ministry. “When we began a concerted effort to minister to the women at the Chowchilla prisons, we learned that most of them never see their children during their entire incarceration,” says Sister Steffen. “The grandmothers who typically care for the children simply don’t have transportation or the money for a bus ticket. In a sense, these children are serving the same sentence as their mothers.”

As a response to the incarcerated women who were asking to see their children, Sister Steffen founded Get on the Bus, an annual trip bringing incarcerated mothers and their children together for Mother’s Day. What began with a single bus leaving from Los Angeles has grown to eight buses and a cadre of volunteers organizing the event throughout California. “We’d like to see Get on the Bus become national,” she says with the confidence of her commitment. Materials are currently being developed to ensure the easy duplication of the program wherever an interested group or individual is located.

As the bus leaves the urban haze of rush hour, it climbs a mountain pass known as the Grapevine and traverses the endless eyeful of agriculture carpeting the great San Joachin Valley. The children grow even quieter as they glimpse the gray-walled fortress that is now their mothers’ home. Before being allowed to enter the prison they must line up in an orderly manner to be “processed” for their visit.

The prison staff approves of Get on the Bus and collaborates in planning and registration efforts. One guard, John, has found that “the children give a lot of the mothers a reason to hope and to have a renewed purpose in life.”

As the children enter the room prepared for their visit, a spontaneous wail rises from the waiting mothers, who have not seen or held their children, sometimes in years. They rush to hug sons and daughters who have grown and changed in their absence. The intensity of the scene is overwhelming as mothers, children and even volunteers weep uncontrollably. The emotional charge is ambiguous: this day is happy, this day is also very sad.

Three years ago Caroline Contreras was in the eighth year of a 16-year sentence. She hadn’t seen her 17-year-old daughter, Cynthia, in four years. Then she spotted a flyer announcing Get on the Bus. “They told us there was limited space, and I was sure that thousands of women here would sign up.” But Caroline, luckily, was selected for a visit, and Cynthia arrived as promised. “I can only compare the emotional joy and cleansing I felt to the day Cynthia was born. I expressed how proud of her I was and I knew then that without a doubt I, too, would make my daughter as proud of me in return.”

Caroline has every reason to be proud. Cynthia graduated as the valedictorian of her class and has served in the Navy for the past two years with plans to pursue a career in criminal law.

After her visit with Cynthia, Caroline enrolled in an optical vocational class. She has since been released and is moving forward with her life. “Get on the Bus gave me the chance to be reminded that I had my daughter to focus on. I realized that I still had to live for her and put behind me what I had lost.”

The three-hour visit comes to a close with renewed tears and last hugs. Each family has had a photo taken to keep as a remembrance of the day. Volunteer counselors are present on the bus to ease the difficulties of the long drive home. Local businesses and civic groups provide a free meal, coloring books and a teddy bear for each child. Before the trip is over, planning for next year begins.There is talk of even more buses and perhaps even professional photographers. Sister Suzanne knows only that the requests and needs seem to grow every year.

As she sleepily climbs off the bus, seven-year-old Natasha is asked what she thinks of the day. “I noticed things about my mother. She was pretty and she looks like me. I also noticed that I’m not so alone, because all of these kids have a mother in prison, too.” With incarceration levels increasing by 6 percent each year, Natasha will be joined by millions of other children who must get on the bus to hug a missing mother.

Kelly Kester-Smith is the owner and creative director of Yes!Communications. She is also an associate of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.