After getting to St. Dennis Church in Diamond Bar by 3 a.m. on an early Friday morning in May, riding almost five hours on a bumpy tour bus and then taking a half-hour to be processed into the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, Shayla Svec, 15, and her grandmother and guardian, Terry Svec, looked beat.

All around them at tables in the big cinderblock room, inmates wearing light blue tops and loose navy pants were snacking on chips and talking a mile a minute. Or just standing up and spontaneously hugging their visiting kids and moms. The background ambience could have been from a non-alcohol New Year’s Eve party or third-grade class with the teacher out of the room.

But Shayla, with black horn-rim glasses and reddish braided hair, and her grandma, also wearing glasses with a wild ponytail down her back, were having none of it. Why? Because they were still waiting. Waiting for their respective mother and daughter, April Svec, to enter the room and join the good times. After all, the clock was ticking on the four-hour visit for the Get On The Bus riders, who had come from across the state to celebrate Mother’s Day with locked up family members. 

Now Terry was forming a church steeple with her intertwined fingers and trying not to make a face. Her granddaughter, who she’s raised from the age of two months on, was resting her chin on an open hand. They had stopped talking to each other, and their glances hardly met. 

Terry got up, walking over to the guard station, coming back shortly looking even more frustrated, shaking her head a little. Shayla was staring at a toddler nearby getting her face painted by a teenage girl in a purple Get On The Bus T-shirt. At another table, a teenage boy about her own age was stretched out laying his head back on his mom’s lap. Inmates walked by with young children in tow. Some were off to get their pictures taken together, others headed to get another can of soda or bag of Doritos.

Looking across the table at her grandchild, Terry just shrugged.

Finally, at almost 10:35 — 55 minutes after the Svecs sat down inside the women’s prison — there was April, dark curly hair combed to one side, coming across the room beaming. They rushed to her, forming a group hug. Sniffles could be heard, tears wiped away.

Soon a mountain of chip bags, water bottles, soda cans and candy wrappers was rising from their table, too, amid rapid-fire talk, loud laughs and more stand-up hugs. This went on through the Subway box lunch, with April sitting in the middle, turning back and forth from daughter to mother, grinning and breaking up.

‘Punishing the children’

“Get On The Bus is the best way for a child to have a nice visit with their parents. In a regular visitor’s day, there’s a lot of restrictions about hugging, running and playing. It’s more prison structured. When we do Get On The Bus, the child feels that she’s coming to see mommy or daddy. She’s not visiting a prisoner. They come on a regular visit, it’s very strange for them. The mom can’t move. Get On The Bus is just different. It’s a family visiting day.”

Amalia Cortina, executive director of Get On The Bus, pointed this out during the Mother’s Day visit to the Central California Women’s Facility on May 12. One hundred and fourteen families from across the state rode 10 tour buses to the women’s prison in Chowchilla. With its 3,676 female inmates, the minimum-to-maximum security facility is 183 percent over design capacity as of last December 31, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. 

“The other part that is very important is the inmate at the same time has the opportunity to bond with her family, and to look for a better change,” Cortina said. “Because they realize how much they are missing at home. They have the opportunity to have deep conversations with their children. And it’s a big incentive for them to change their behavior in prison. Because if they’re in trouble, they suspend their visit and they’re not gonna be able to participate with Get On The Bus.”

After a moment, she added, “But the beauty of Get On The Bus is we educate the community in restorative justice. When we give our talk to churches and groups, we explain that we are punishing the children for a crime that they didn’t commit.

And it’s our obligation to help them. Because we don’t want them to go on the same path as their parents.”

But what do the visits do for teenagers like Shayla Svec?              

“It’s the same for teenagers,” said the executive director. “Teenagers have issues that they need to talk to their mothers about. With little kids, it’s about hugging and kissing and ‘I love you mommy and play with me!’ But teenagers, they may want to talk about real problems that they have on the outside. We had a family in one of the facilities last year where the teenager said to the mom ‘My father is abusing me.’

“So, you know, Get On The Bus might be the only opportunity they have to talk about these big issues. So it’s a great opportunity for a teenager, and even adult children. I see them crying when they see their mom. Mom is ‘mom’ regardless of your age. And you need her.”

Intimate visit   

After lunch, when there was a mini-lull, I asked the 39-year-old April, who’s been incarcerated for 15 ¬Ω years for a serious offense, what the yearly Get On The Bus visits mean to her. There was no hesitation in her reply.

“To me it’s an opportunity to have an intimate visit without the interruption of the staff, like ‘Hey, don’t do this!’ or ‘Don’t do that!’” she pointed out. “It’s much looser for Get On The Bus. It’s much more kickback.

“I’m a multigeneration addict. So for my daughter to see the generational strongholds being broken in our family and to witness, even in the perils of being in this place, you can overcome adversity no matter where you’re planted, is something. And I’m a firm believer in growing where you’re planted.

“So I think this program is huge,” she said. “And I think that even for all the women here, it’s just an opportunity to have the intimacy with our kids that we normally don’t have.”

April has earned associate degrees in the humanities and science while locked up. And a week after this visit, she’s graduating from a certified drug and counseling program. Next month she will be transferred to a community-based re-entry facility in San Diego to serve the last two years of her sentence. And she plans on continuing her higher education into graduate school.

When asked about the small silver cross she was wearing, the inmate broke into another big smile. She said her life changed after going to a four-day Kairos Prison Ministry retreat in 2010. God was her turning point, helping her find her real purpose in life and be a good example to her daughter.

“I think these visits show her that no matter where I’ve been at, that I’ve loved her through this whole prison sentence,” said April. “And I’ve continuously tried to be the best mom that I could be for her, even though I haven’t been emotionally there for her.

“I think that given the opportunity of the relationship we’ve been able to build,” she pointed out, “that once I’m out of here it’s just gonna amplify that even more.”

‘That’s what I love the most’

“This is our last Get On The Bus ride,” said Terry, April’s mom. “We’ve been doing this since they started. And my daughter in prison, she’s been down since 2001. But now she’s going into like a recovery program in San Diego. So we’ll be moving there, too.”

Has she changed?

“Totally. She’s not the same person who came into prison. I believe she’s grown up. I think that she’s matured tremendously, because she was like a kid when she came into prison.

“She goes to church. She’s totally into God. She was baptized Christian, but she does the sweat boxes they have for Native Americans. She likes to explore. …We don’t know her anymore, you know. She’s a different person. She’s not the same person who went into prison. That’s definitely for sure.”

Terry said she talks to her daughter on the phone, but this is different.

“Cause it’s hands-on. We can hug her. She can do our hair. I love it when she braids my hair. I leave it for three or four days after we leave here. And phone calls are monitored. People listen in.

“When we’re talking here, we can talk about, like, personal stuff. We can have real conversations. That’s what I love the most.”

From a ‘bad place’

Now the background buzz softened in the room. Conversations became almost whispers, with heads coming closer together. Hugs were different, too. More of “When will I see you again?” then “Wow! It’s wonderful to see you.”

April and Shayla stood up to do a stand-in-place slow waltz. It was hard to tell who was leading. They looked into each other’s eyes and giggled. Then they walked across the room to the patio, sitting down at a concrete umbrella table. It was windy and chilly, but they didn’t seem to mind. The mom rebraided her daughter’s hair. After, they walked to the edge of the grass, passing a white-haired woman in huddled conversation with a gray-haired women, before going back inside.

Just after 1:30, a guard shouted for an inmate group to line up. Four minutes later, it’s April’s group. First she hugged her mom before giving Shayla an even longer one.

Visitors went to the guard station to get paperwork needed to exit the prison. Then they gathered at one end of the room. At the other, April stood on her tiptoes to see them, staring for a good five minutes, watching until she couldn’t stand it, then made her way over to her mom and daughter for one last hug. Returning to her line, she wiped away tears with one quick stroke.

An hour later, when our bus stopped at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Bakersfield for a spaghetti dinner, Shayla told me she had a good time. “Yeah, it was really fun,” said the 15-year-old. “We talked and then I got, like, paintings on my arm from the face painters. And then she braided my hair. And then we sang together. I sang her my song that I’m gonna perform tomorrow night at my performing arts high school in Pomona.

“I picked the song ‘All That Jazz’ from the musical ‘Chicago,’” she said in an upbeat voice. “So I sang her that song, and it was my first solo singing it for her. She started crying. Yeah, it was amazing.”

Shayla says her mom has changed a lot from early visits. Back then she had few friends, didn’t like to talk about her past and was in a real “bad place.” She thinks becoming a Christian and exploring other faiths, especially Native American practices, has made a big difference.

“I’m just really proud of her,” she said. “Like, she’s come such a long way being in such a bad place. She’s taken that time, and she’s done something good. So I’m so proud of her.”

Locked up women

Women currently make up a larger proportion of the prison population in the United States than ever before, according to The Sentencing Project. The female prison population is nearly eight times higher than its count in 1980. Between 1980 and 2014, the number of incarcerated women jumped more than 700 percent, from 26,378 to 215,332.

More than 60 percent of women in state prisons have a child under the age of 18.

Across the nation, 65 out of every 100,000 women were in prison in 2014. Oklahoma (142) had the highest rate, Rhode Island (12) the lowest. California’s rate was 33 per 100,000.

In 2014, the imprisonment rate for African American women was more than twice the rate for white women (109 vs. 53 per 100,000). The incarceration rate for Hispanic women was 1.2 times the rate of white women (64 vs. 53 per 100,000).

As of May 2017, 5,909 women and 120,368 men were serving time for felonies in California.

Sixty percent of parents in state prison report being incarcerated more than 100 miles from their children.

More than half the inmates in state prisons report never having one visit from their children.

Get On The Bus

Get On The Bus was founded in California by Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet Suzanne Steffen and Suzanne Jabro in 1999 — first bringing children to see their mothers in prison for Mother’s Day and in 2006 to visit their incarcerated fathers for Father’s Day.

The yearly events offer free transportation for children and their caregivers (often grandmothers) to selected prisons. Children get travel bags and a photo with their parents. Meals are provided for the long day, which starts the night before or in the early morning hours. Breakfast and snacks on the bus are provided. At the prison, there’s a special box lunch with the parent. Dinner on the way home is usually at a local parish.

The in-prison visits last about four hours. Sons and daughters are encouraged to stay in touch with their parents through postcards and letters.

Get On The Bus is a program of The Center for Restorative Justice Works, a nonprofit based in North Hollywood that unites children, families and communities separated by crime and the criminal justice system. For more information on Get on the Bus, contact the center at 818-980-7714 or email [email protected].