Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Get on the Bus

Thanks to Cardozo for today's post...

(I happened to be listening to NPR yesterday afternoon as I was out doing errands, and heard mention of this same program he writes about in this entry):

I hate prison. The whole system stinks. I hate that prisons are filled with so many people whose preferred (read: affordable) form of escape and self-medication has been randomly declared to be illegal. I hate that we can find no better solution to inter-personal conflict than to judge one of the parties as "guilty" and lock the problem away, unresolved but out of sight. I hate that prisons are intended to punish, not heal.

And I hate how prison creates an endless trail of collateral damage to the children whose parents have been incarcerated.

Through an amazing program called Get on the Bus, I've recently discovered firsthand that the children of California state prisoners are likely to live hundreds of miles from where their parents are incarcerated. A visit is precious and rare. Most do not have access to cars that can make the drive through the hills and deserts. They also often lack the funds for a motel stay, and too many even lack the willingness on the part of the foster family to accompany them to the prison.

Families are torn asunder in this way. Parents lose track of a child's progress, and vice-versa. The crumbling of the family resulting from an extended prison sentence undoubtedly contributes to an extremely high rate of recidivism.

Get on the Bus works to keep these families together during trying times. Run by a network of hundreds of volunteers and only 2 paid staff, Get on the Bus organizes annual Mother's Day and Father's Day bus trips from under-served communities to the state prisons. Costs are fully covered, and in many cases the Get on the Bus day will be the only time during the year that children will get to see their incarcerated parent in person.

Just this past Friday, I was privileged to serve as the coordinator for a bus that traveled between South L.A. and Chowchilla womens' prison near Fresno. Watching young children be re-united with their parent was an incredibly profound experience, an experience that was deepened by the months of preparation I did for the trip: working with a team of 14 volunteers to sign up the families, raise the $4,000 for the bus and administrative expenses, and collect travel bags, teddy bears, and "stay connected" supplies for the kids.

By the time event day arrived on May 9th, I knew in intimate and heart-wrenching detail the challenges presented to families from incarceration. When Alicia's mother was sent to Chowchilla, for example, Alicia entered the musical-chair Foster Care system, her father having left the family years earlier. When I first met her she lived with a handful of other foster kids in a group home in South Los Angeles. By the time event day arrived, she had been moved yet again to Lancaster. Alicia has a roof over her head wherever she is placed, but in reality she has been homeless since her mother went to prison. May 9th was Alicia's sixteenth birthday and I overheard her saying that this was going to be her best birthday yet, because she'd be seeing her mother that day. Helping to facilitate that simple birthday wish is undoubtedly one of the most valuable things I've ever done.

At Chowchilla on event day, the 47 bus coordinators stood in awe as, all around us, bittersweet tears flooded the eyes of Alicia, her mother, and hundreds of other parents and children. For some mothers, their child had matured from a toddler to a young man or woman during the time since their last meeting. Others were seeing their grandchildren for the very first time. Four hours was not enough, and the temporarily-reunited families clung to every last moment.

As a society, we have decided that the best way to handle breaches of the law is through punishment and isolation. The merits of this philosophy are highly suspect, but not controversial. Regardless, I think we can all agree that children should not be punished for the crimes of their parents.

A once-a-year visit is not enough. What more can we do as a community to ensure that the punishment of a criminal does not also entail the punishment of the child and the break-up of the family?


thailandchani said...

Great post! This is a huge topic! It does seem that increasing separation is rather antithetical to healing, doesn't it? Make an offender feel even more separate so he/she won't commit more crimes against the collective - instead of bringing the offender back into the collective.

Screwy.. but what isn't screwy here?


John Torcello said...

So much of our penal system is about an 'out of sight, out of mind' mentality; sort of the pinnacle of 'ignorance' as defined in the Dharma.

Other issues in our society are treated similarly; the failure of our health system and lack of universal healthcare, for example - personal concern only when one who gets (or knows someone who gets) sick...only then, by analogy, like those who 'Get on the Bus', we 'visit' the issue through our own experience of suffering.

The practice in this country of enacting laws to punish certain ways of life deemed 'criminal' by those with particular 'belief' systems; at the expense of others who don't 'believe' the same; without consideration for the relevancy of the proposed law to all of those it might affect; this is another common theme.

'Get on the Bus', as described in the posting, is a wonderful and good thing provided for and by people who care...

But, sadly, it seems to be one of the same sort of 'hidden' programs...existing and struggling to provide what's 'right' to a society that prefers to just 'ignore' the consequences of certain laws in its application of so-called justice.

So, on it goes; round and round...this 'samsara' that provides for each of us, our own unique, countless, set of hurdles in life; which we can choose to face as challenges and work to overcome....or, ignore, and face them over and over again...

Is it two steps forward, three steps back?...
or, three steps forward, two steps back?...

They call him James Ure said...

Another problem with prison is that it teaches petty criminals and non-violent drug offenders to be REAL criminals.

They call him James Ure said...

Or perhaps I should say, BETTER criminals.