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Riding to Folsom with a bishop

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Bishop David O’Connell prays with a family at Folsom State Prison on June 25. (photo/R.W. Dellinger)

Saturday, June 25, 1:29 a.m. The white chartered bus with dark trim around its tinted windows pulls into Holy Family’s parking lot in South Pasadena. A good hour late. Some 15 women, including more than a few grandmothers, are out here in front of the youth center with kids in tow.

So are four folks wearing purple T-shirts embossed with “Get On The Bus” white logos. And so is Auxiliary Bishop David O’Connell of the San Gabriel Region. He’s going along on the 400-mile ride to Folsom State Prison and nearby California State Prison, Sacramento, too.

“There it is!” says a woman volunteer.

“Oh, boy” adds another.

“Divine intervention!” returns the first.

On the bus, volunteers from Holy Family and other parishes pass out blankets, quilts and pillows to already bleary-eyed passengers.

Bishop O’Connell, wearing a gray flannel shirt-coat over black slacks and a St. John’s (seminary) baseball cap, is asked to give a blessing. He concludes by saying, “…bless especially the children. Keep us all safe. And bring us your joy and peace. And bless the driver. Be with him, guide him and keep him in your care, Lord. Amen.”

“Amen!”

The white bus’s engine revs. Even before reaching the 210 Freeway, women and children are huddled together, wrapped up tight, trying to sleep. The bishop, sitting three rows back on the left side, also leans his head against the window.

Traffic is light. We’re making real good time getting out of L.A. 

But it’s a stiff, bouncy ride in the VanHool bus, with more than 1 million miles on the odometer. And it came all the way from San Bernardino with passengers, making a stop in Victorville for more, then west to South Pasadena. One of four buses on this last Get On The Bus trip for 2016. Others will join us from Oakland, Orange County and South Los Angeles.

Since 2000 the Center For Restorative Justice Works’ social justice-minded program based in North Hollywood brings kids, along with current caregivers, from all over California to visit their moms and dads serving time in faraway state and federal prisons. For most, it’s their only visit all year. 

Riders have nodded off. Only the driver keeps talking with the alternate driver through the night. Passing mostly semitractor-trailers headed out of town on the Golden State Freeway and then old Highway 99.

Four hours later we’re driving between well-fertilized, pungent-smelling fields and dark fruit orchards. Bishop O’Connell opens his eyes. So does Father Bill Eastering, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Covina, sitting right in front of him. They start telling each other dying jokes: “An old man wakes up in heaven and St. Peter says, ‘…’”

At exactly 6:30, the scarlet horizon breaks through windows across the aisle. Bishop O’Connell has iPhone earphones on staring out his window. Is he meditating or just listening to a favorite tune from the ‘60s he’s downloaded? Maybe even Johnny Cash’s live “At Folsom Prison” album?

After a half-hour pit stop at Divine Savior Church for breakfast and to wash up, the white bus enters the prisons’ grounds at 10:21 Saturday morning. Acres of rolling sandy fields dotted with dark green oaks. We let off two families in front of California State Prison, Sacramento, a nondescript level IV maximum security institution.

Ten minutes more and we file off the bus into a reception area that could double for a down-on-its-luck Greyhound station. Through an open back door you can see high granite-block walls that look downright medieval. Signs on the closed door beside it read “No hats. No form fitting attire will be allowed.” And “Visitors are not allowed to enter or exit this door without officers’ permission.”

It takes time for those state corrections officers — dressed in khaki-shirt and forest-green-pant uniforms — to process everyone. But within 35 minutes, all from the white bus have walked through the metal detector.

The men’s visitors area is two linked rectangular rooms with small pressed-wood tables and metal-frame plastic chairs scattered about. Bishop O’Connell sits next to a young inmate with a thin mustache and his visiting family: a boy, maybe 8, and teenage son and daughter. He leans close to hear the guy with “CDCR Prisoner” on the back of his loose blue shirt. He’s talking about getting his high school diploma in prison. The inmate also mentions how much he really likes Bible study. The bishop nods. “That’s wonderful,” he says with a heavy Irish brogue.

After a few minutes, family members stand up. They hold hands with the bishop in a makeshift circle, heads down, while he prays aloud. The scene will be repeated over a dozen times before it’s time to leave. “So-long” looks are exchanged with pats on the back and hugs. But no visible tears.

The bishop gets a ride with Krissi Khokhobashvili, public information office for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, to the women’s facility less than a mile away. Some 60 inmates are waiting in an outside yard bordered by more stone block walls topped with coiled razor wire. It resembles something from a Jimmy Cagney film of the ‘30s. Maybe “The Public Enemy” with Jean Harlow? Except the bottom part of the wall is decorated with colored chalk graffiti like “Mom loves you soo,oooo MUCH.” In the afternoon sun it must be over 100. But the women are sitting at round tables decorated with birthday tablecloths and balloons under tarps.

Again, Bishop O’Connell makes his way deliberately from table to table.

An inmate with cornrow braids is smiling through her painted party face talking to her adolescent son. Nearby a mom is bouncing a toddler on her knee. And two teenage girls are talking shyly with an older prisoner wearing granny glasses. It could be a summer parish picnic, parents and kids eating snacks and sipping sodas. Except these mothers are all wearing the same powder blue tops and elastic-band navy pants. And, of course, there’s those granite-block walls.

After a couple short hours, goodbyes with the moms are way heavier than the men’s. Lots of awkward embraces, not-so-muffled sighs and tears running down black and brown young faces.

On the way home — after a short reception at another nearby parish, St. John the Baptist — the bishop is asked why he wanted to go on the bus ride to Folsom.

“Well, because I really admire what Get On The Bus is doing,” he says. “Because all those years working in South L.A., I knew many kids whose parents were in prisons. And I knew how they suffer, how they’re traumatized from all the awful things in their lives. And this gives their parents a reason to live. It gives them a reason to turn their lives around. It gives them hope, some kind of hope for the future.”

Later that Saturday evening — 18 hours into the 22-hour marathon trip — Bishop O’Connell rests his head against his window again. “I hear that train a comin’. It’s rolling round the bend. And I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when. I’m stuck in Folsom Prison and time keeps draggin’ on,” he sings to himself.

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