“It was really a good day and it was a happy day because I went to see my mommy,” said five-year-old Erda, glancing over at her grandmother in a window seat. “We played and went on the slide and the monkey bars. It was a good day with my mommy in my heart.” She uttered this profound observation after spending about four hours with her mother at CIW that houses some 2,000 female inmates, including Charles Manson “Family” members Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten. Erda and another 225 children and their current caregivers came to the female-only state prison on May 14 --- from buses originating in Watts and Bellflower; the Antelope, San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys; Riverside and San Bernardino; San Diego and Sacramento --- as part of Get On The Bus’ annual program. Started in 2000 with 17 kids riding one bus to one prison, GOTB will take 1,200 boys and girls on 58 buses in California to see their incarcerated parents at nine prisons to celebrate this year’s Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. San Quentin and Old Folsom prisons were added this year.  Each child receives a goodie travel bag, a photo with his or her parent and meals. And on the way home, they get a big cuddly Teddy Bear with a letter from their parent and “stay-connected” bag (stamps, stationary and camera), along with post-event counseling.Get On The Bus is a program of The Center for Restorative Justice Works, founded by Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet Suzanne Jabro, who still directs the community-based nonprofit, funded by grants from foundations and donations from churches, businesses and individuals. The skeletal staff directs hundreds of volunteers throughout California for the yearly prison visits.What not to wear“This means a lot to me because you’re secluded here and to have your family makes you feel like you’re not so off by yourself,” said inmate Roxane Bowers. She was sitting at a round table in between her mother, Patricia Hardaway, and her five-year-old daughter, Layla, who was only one when her mother was incarcerated at CIW. “So it means the world.”Patricia nodded. “It’s really a joy to see her,” the grandmother said, explaining how she is raising Layla and her four-year-old sister in Compton and can only make it out to Chino a few times a year. “I just thank God for Get On The Bus and a chance to see her.”Now Roxanne was smiling at her daughter, who was gluing together a crape-paper picture frame. “It’s special.”At a half-hour to noon the large rec room, with a dozen round tables and wall-to-wall bank of vending machines, was filling up. Inmates were garbed in light blue denim shirts over dark blue denim pants, while the guards looked military-like in khaki short-sleeve shirts and olive slacks. Visitors were told mostly what not to wear: no strapless, halter or tank tops; no wrap-around skirts or dresses; no Lycra or Spandex clothing; no warm-up, sweat or jogging suits; no hats, hair pieces or hair weaves and a half-dozen other items. All Get On The bus staff members, volunteers and riders had to wear a GOTB purple T-shirt with a distinctive white logo across the front. And the instruction sheet further pointed out that it was best to wear pants with deep pockets to store one car key, one handkerchief, a photo ID,  a total of $50 in one-dollar bills or quarters per adult and $30 per minor visitor, a plastic comb or brush, and a clear plastic change purse. Nearby Roxane’s table a middle-age inmate was all smiles, holding up a toddler as her daughter looked on. Another women dressed in blue denim at another table was face-to-face with a pre-teen girl. Was she giving advice or simply catching up?  Three female guards stood behind a corner counter casually checking out the goings on. Day of escapeOutdoors in the connected patio area inmates and their visitors sat at plastic picnic tables eating slices of pizza, chips and cookies, and downing cans of Coke. A single woman near the chain-link fence topped with barbed constantino wire stood out. Her gaze was fixed on a woman beyond a second high fence coming out of the reception building holding a little boy in her arms. Now the inmate was waving both hands. “Hi, baby! Hi, baby!” she said, but in a hushed tone. A sign attached to the fence explained the reason for her low voice: “No yelling thru the fence or visit will be terminated.” But the mother couldn’t help herself. She started blowing kisses as her words got louder and louder. Two other inmates soon joined her in beckoning to their own children. After a while, the first fence gate slid open, then after some 30 seconds the second did the same.  Also outside was a jungle gym playground. Two boys were hanging from bars, while an older boy on top was waving his arms and shouting “Ma! Ma!” When he finally got his mother’s attention, he slide down the curvy yellow slide grinning. Inside, inmate Monica Limon was smiling herself, chatting with her mother, Rita Martinez, with her 16-year-old son, Carlos, between them. Her younger son, six-year-old Fidel, was out in the playground. “It feels good,” Carlos said about the prison visit. “I’m happy to see her.”Monica nodded. “It’s very important to keep that bond,” she stressed. “You know, out of sight, out of mind. The visits help to hold us together. You don’t feel like you’re being left out, even if our time together is only a little while. A lot of women here don’t have anybody come see them. They feel like their family has abandoned them.”Her own mom said she didn’t drive and was lucky to get a ride out to CIW every three months or so with relatives of another inmate. “So this bus program is a blessing,” she said. “It helps a lot of people who want to see their loved ones who can’t afford it. And it keeps you tied together.”“It’s like a day of escape for us,” mused Monica.   Coming back to CIFApproaching mid-afternoon, the round tables inside and picnic tables outside were littered with soft drink cans, half-empty bags of chips and candy bar wrappers. And the overall mood was subdued. A young mother at one picnic table was stroking her daughter’s shoulder-length hair. In the visitor’s room, an older mom had her arm around her teenage son. Other mothers were packing up board and card games.  At 2:48 lights flicked off and on, but Nancy Nunez continued rocking her 3 1/2-year-old daughter, wrapped in a white hooded jacket, in her arms. She was singing softly: “The wheels on the bus go round and round ….” Seven minutes later, when the lights went off again and Nancy was half-through singing the alphabet, she finally stood up, still cradling Breanna close to her body. Other moms and kids were trying with mixed results to hold back tears. A little girl with braids ending with colored plastic tips was crying hysterically, and had to be led away through the double sliding chain-link doors by a GOTB volunteer. Inmates stood as stoically as they could, waving goodbyes after long hugs.Back on the bus to Bellflower and Watts, co-bus leader Georgette “GiGi” Breland was helping caregivers and children find their seats and hand out waist-high Teddy Bears along with “Stay-Connected” bags. She knew more than most GOTB volunteers or even staff members what such separation trauma was really like --- not only for the children but also their incarcerated mothers left behind at CIW.For 29 years, GiGi was locked inside the California Institution for Women for killing an abusive roommate in 1980, when there was no self-defense battered woman syndrome law in place. So at 23 she plea bargained for second-degree murder with a life sentence. Over the course of 17 parole hearings, the board found her “suitable” for parole on three occasions. But the governor reversed the decision every time. So she researched and wrote a writ of habeas corpus and an appeal knowing at the time nothing about the law. Both the superior court and appellate court ruled against her, but the California Supreme Court ordered the parole board to set her free. And on January 26, 2009, GiGi walked out of CIW.“When I first got to prison, I had to find out who I was first and work on me first and stop blaming everybody else,” said the now-52-year-old woman. “When I did my own inventory and didn’t worry about what other people had done to me, just worried about the part that I played in abusive relationships, it really made a difference. “But that didn’t happen overnight. It really started in 1986, when I started going to a 12-step program, and I wasn’t an alcoholic or addict. I wasn’t out there long enough to have a drug problem. But I’m a co-dependent and that’s why I allowed men to abuse me and be abused. Because, obviously, I couldn’t like myself very much.”“I made amends to my victim by becoming a different person,” she explained. “So I live my amends to my victim.”After getting paroled, Gigi worked for The Center For Restorative Justice Works until last February. That’s when she became a staff member of A New Way of Life, a Watts-based reentry program for women coming out of prison. She still volunteers at GOTB, however, and attends monthly “Women of Wisdom” meetings that bring women from outside into the state prison. “It’s important for me to go back because I feel like I’m paying it forward,” she said. “Because I grew up there, you know, so I couldn’t forget about the women that I left there. And then especially for the women lifers, it gives them hope when they see me coming back and sharing my successes, my failures, whatever. “Every year I say I’m not going to be a bus leader because it’s too much work,” the former inmate acknowledged. “But once you see like the kids with their parents … and for some of them it’s the only time they get to see their mother is when Get On The Bus comes. But I think that visit really, really means something to the kids --- just knowing that she still loves them no matter what and she is still part of their lives.” {gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2011/0520/bus{/gallery}