Prison visits matter: I know because I spent decades making them to see my dad
Jeri Ross lost her father to incarceration when she was 10 and then, as an adult, spent decades wishing she could visit him. But he was housed in a prison 3,000 miles away from her Santa Cruz home. In July, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill to change that pattern for the 195,000 kids who currently have a parent or guardian in state prison. The “Keep Families Close” bill orders the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to place a parent, legal guardian or caregiver of a minor child in the correctional facility closest to the family’s home. Ross celebrates the bill and what it means for kids.
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When my father was given life without the possibility of parole in 1984 for narcotics trafficking, I was living in Santa Cruz with my husband and three small children. Dad was in a maximum-security penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, 3,000 miles away. I did not see my father for 12 years. Our family couldn’t afford the costs of traveling or take the time away from our day-to-day responsibilities.
In 1996, Dad was granted a temporary transfer from Lewisburg to Atlanta, where my sister lived. She was getting married. Dad knew we were all coming from California for the wedding, and if he could get to the Atlanta penitentiary, we would come to see him.
The day after the wedding, on a hot, humid August morning, we drove into the parking lot of United States Penitentiary Atlanta. We parked and walked in silence toward the massive stone fortress surrounded by guard towers and barbed-wire fences. I reached over and took my 12-year-old daughter’s hand in mine.
She would be meeting her grandfather for the first time. And I would be seeing him in prison for the first time.
Forty-five minutes later, after being processed through metal detectors, stamped and led down halls behind a guard, with steel gates opening and clanging shut behind us, we waited for Dad on hard plastic chairs in one massive room filled with other families talking. The noise was deafening. The good news was we had arrived at 8 a.m., the start of visiting hours, and we could stay until 3 p.m.
It would be a long day.
I was nervous and excited to see my father after so many years. He wrote often and we talked on the phone during that time so I felt close to him.
When Dad came through the door, my first thought was how good he looked. His skin was smooth and his eyes bright. I ran up to him and we embraced, crying. It felt like floodwaters of love bursting through a dam. When we walked back to our small, plastic table, the kids and Salvador, my husband, all hugged him.
That day, it didn’t matter that we were in a prison.
The joyful spirit of our reunion took over, and between smiles and stories, we were a family unit cocooned together as if no one else was in the room. At one point, Dad reached over, took my hand, and held it in his for a long time. I was finally in the caring presence of my father.
As the decades passed, my sister and I made long trips to see our father about every two to three years. He didn’t see my kids again until they were adults. But on their birthdays, he always sent hand-drawn, comic book birthday cards made by inmates. He also sent knitted bears and bunnies that my grandkids now play with.
Several years ago, I read an article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel about Get on the Bus, a nonprofit program that helps children visit their parents in California state prisons. I became an active volunteer.
Nearly half (47%) of the approximately 1.25 million people in state prison are parents of minor children, and about 1 in 5 (19%) of those children is age 4 or younger. Yet two-thirds of parents in prison with minor children have never received a visit from them.
Many parents are simply incarcerated too far from home for visits to be logistically or economically feasible.
Each year on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, hundreds of children and their caregivers board buses and travel from cities all over California to be united with their parents. Get on the Bus offers a priceless opportunity, a mother’s touch, a father’s hug, a family photo.
As a volunteer on Father’s Day this year, I woke at dawn and drove to Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad. I helped set up tables with snacks and goodie bags for the children. When the buses started to roll into the parking lot, most of the children had been traveling for many hours. I escorted groups of children and caregivers inside the visiting rooms and helped monitor the visits, making sure the children had pizzas, puzzles and a painted face.
Studies have shown that children who have regular visits with their incarcerated parent demonstrate better emotional and social adjustment. Regular visits between children and their incarcerated parent lowers rates of recidivism for the parent and improves family reunification following the parent’s release.
After years of research and advocacy, there is good news to report in California.
Assembly Bill 1226, the bill proposed by California Assemblymember Matt Haney (D-San Francisco) that helps incarcerated parents maintain contact with their children, was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom in July. Known as the “Keep Families Close” bill, it orders the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to place an incarcerated parent, legal guardian or caregiver of a minor child in the correctional facility closest to their child’s home. A news release from Haney’s office explains that thousands of incarcerated parents across California are placed in a correctional facility more than 500 miles from their children.
When Jeri Ross was 10, her father disappeared. Her mom and grandmother told her he was at a “training school,” but...
“We know that having a relationship with parents is crucial for a child’s behavioral and emotional development,” Haney says in the release. “Being able to see them on a regular basis, even just during visits, can make a huge difference in a child’s life.”
This is good for kids. It’s also good for rehabilitation and reentry. “A huge part of rehabilitation is keeping people connected to loved ones outside,” Haney said.
Included in the bill is the option for already incarcerated parents to request a transfer to the prison closest to their child’s home. The bill does not apply to individuals convicted of violence and sex-related offenses that prohibit them from having child-visitation rights.
I know just how meaningful visits with my father were for me.
Incarceration is stigmatized in our society. Families often don’t tell anyone about their loved ones in prison, which makes it even more challenging for policy changes that help children.
Yet because of mass incarceration and long prison sentences, more and more advocacy groups have emerged.
Prison visits matter. They matter to all of us offering the hope for children to have the best possible opportunity to grow and flourish into successful adults. They deserve to know they are loved and not forgotten.
Jeri Ross has lived in Santa Cruz since 1972. She graduated with a master’s degree in public health from San Jose State University and worked for the Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency for 20 years. She currently is a life coach and advocate for families affected by incarceration as well as author of “See You in the Sky: A Memoir of Prison, Possibility and Peace.” Her previous piece for Lookout about her father ran in August.