Mother's Day in Chowchilla
by Sara Olson

 children-of-prisoners  motherhood  personal-narrative

What makes a mother legitimate? Who has the right to be a mother in the United States? Are women who are incarcerated fallen women, prime examples of the patriarchal version of the Garden of Eden story and, thus, ineligible for legitimate motherhood? Do we feel love for our children? Do we miss them like women who have never been in prison? Yes, we do.

Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) is located about 20 miles North of Fresno, between Madera and Chowchilla and right across the road from Valley State Prison for Women (VSPW). Together, they form the largest women’s prison complex in the world with an incarcerated population of approximately 7,500.

Most of the prisoners at CCWF are mothers. On Friday, May 12, CCWF hosted the annual Get on the Bus (GOTB) event, uniting women prisoners with our children and loved ones, to honor Mother’s Day. GOTB day is organized and financially supported by various Catholic dioceses and a large number of other churches and organizations throughout the state. The main organizing work within the prison is spearheaded by Ms. Hansen of Friends Outside, a self-help group operating within and without California’s CDCR institutions. Staff from the prison allow the event to occur once a year.

This year, 189 women applied to take part in the festivities held in the prison’s Visiting Center. Only 46 weren’t approved. Denial of approval typically centers on parental custody or documentation issues.

California’s Southern dioceses handled the logistics for CCWF mothers because its prisoners come from all points South of Bakersfield. They bring the women’s children and other relatives and friends - sisters, mothers, aunts and uncles. For instance, Shirelle C.’s son lives in Elsinore. The Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino sponsored him.

The churches raise money privately to pay for the buses, breakfast, and dinner meals en route both ways, food in the Visiting Center for inmates and guests, a gift tote bag of art materials for each child and two Polaroid photos. They provide outreach services to help the kids come by assembling and paying for identification, birth certificates and notary services.

On the big day, inmates come to the gym on the main yard. The night before, we receive ducats (an in-prison appointment pass) on the three facility yards for 9 AM. As the buses come in from Southern California, women are called to the Visiting Center to meet with the children and other loved ones. This year, only three women in the gym were never called.

Usually the buses arrive between 10 and 11 AM. Barbara T.’s mother and children came at 12:30 PM after a six and one-half hour trip. The visits last until 3:30 PM. Last year, Shirelle C.’s family came late because the bus driver, who apologized, had overslept two hours.

The celebrants share a prepared meal of hot dogs, chips, a soda pop and ice cream. Besides the art totebag, this year the kids were able to choose a book or two and a Pound Puppy provided by members of the Inmate Family Council.

The week before the event, the mothers write a letter telling our children how much we enjoyed the visit. The letters are distributed on the bus ride home. The children tell mom how thrilled they were to read them.

After the visit, inmate mothers, like all who get a visit, are stripped and searched. We can each bring back a Polaroid photo from the visit. It’s a magic time even though moms can’t bring back the cards made by our children during the visit or, if the kids have drawn a creative handprint on mom’s shirt, mom may be threatened with a write up for “destroying state property.” No matter. It’s worth it.

Get on the Bus Friday is the only time most mothers see our children each year. It’s a precious gift but it’s hardly adequate for either party. Many mothers are lifers of very long termers. When one considers the impact incarceration has on a mother and child, one finds: prison destroys. It attempts to destroy not only the mother/child bond but, consequently, it strikes huge reverberations throughout our family and community structures.

Furthermore, the majority of GOTB women prisoners can not ever have overnight visits with our children. In 1994 California outlawed Family (FLV) Visits for lifers. This proscription was extended to all Close A and Close B (Close Custody) inmates, a designation that limits in-prison movement and programs which creates more special staff positions for guards on each faculty yard.

Children of prisoners and we, their moms, need to see each other more often. We would like to have more GOTB Fridays, restoration of Family Visits for lifers, and a reduction in the wholly unnecessary Close Custody designation. After all, in prison or not, for a woman who is a mother, everyday is Mother’s Day.