As the holidays approach, I find myself reflecting on my Christmas 2016 visit with my mom at California Institution for Women (CIW) in Corona, CA. The visiting room was extra crowded that day, even though a very small percentage of the women inmates get prison visits.
This is especially true on Christmas. Most people just don’t want to spend the holiday waiting in visiting centers, dealing with metal detectors and COs and traveling to the facility.
Sadly, many of the prisoners who never get visits will probably return. Recidivism rates have proven to increase, in many cases, for inmates who never get visits. They need support groups, friends and family, willing to help them get through the struggles of readjusting to life on the outside.
If they don’t have loved ones who care enough about them to visit them in prisons, what type of chance do they have after release?
Visiting Mom in Prison on Christmas Day
I sit in the waiting area, looking through the glass waiting for my mom to come out to the visiting room. When I see her, the CO buzzes me in and we hug… briefly of course, thanks to CDCR rules.
Luckily, the prison affectionately referred to as CI-Wonderful is a bit more laxed than most CDCR facilities. The women inmates are allowed to hold hands and touch a bit more than others. But we all know not to take it too far.
The cameras are watching!
As usual, I’m a late visitor. So, when I arrive on Christmas day at CIW, the visiting room is full… and noisy. So, my mom and I decide to find seats outside on the patio. (Yes, CIW has a patio and a little playground for the kids.)
People Watching on My Prison Visit
I people watch a lot when I’m on prison visits. It’s interesting to watch families, friends and lovers greet each other. But when kids are involved, it can be both heartbreaking and heartwarming.
A 2-year-old boy who had been whining in the visiting center finally came into the visiting room with his great-grandmother.
I had helped her entertain him in the visiting center, while chatting with the woman. The elderly women told me that her granddaughter had a drug problem, and that led her to prison.
She and her husband adopted the baby so he wouldn’t be in the system. Soon after the adoption was final, her husband suddenly died.
Now here was this 70-something-year-old woman, raising this “terrible two” toddler as a single mother. She’d been to the prison FOUR times trying to let this child see his mother. There was one paperwork issue after the other.
My name was called. I was virtually stripped, slid through the metal detector with ease, and wished her luck.
I was so happy for both of them as they came into the visiting room looking confused. As they came in, he looked amazed and quickly started crying.
Then, he saw his mother!
Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!
His mother embraced him in a huge bear hug and they both cried for what seemed like a minute or so. Eventually, she remembered great-grandma and kissed and hugged her with so much gratefulness for bringing her baby to see her in prison.
Then, I watched as a group of three siblings came in with their father to see their mom. One had been in the visiting center talking nonstop about all the things she planned to tell mom. Another cried because she was already thinking about how she would feel when it’s time to go and leave Mommy behind.
I was shocked and disgusted by what I saw as these kids came running inside yelling for their mother. She ran right passed all three children to get to her husband.
They kissed, hugged, embraced and began talking. In the meantime, the kids are still standing there waiting to be acknowledged. She grabbed that man’s hand, and led him to a table, where they all sat.
Never once did I see her hug or kiss those ‘prison kids’!
Another man came in with his two children. He was a tall stocky man, so he really caught my attention. The kids were dressed nice and well-groomed. I thought about this wondering if he combed the little girl’s hair too.
When they were buzzed in to see mom, the look on her face was priceless. You could tell she was happy to see her husband. But the way she looked at her children touched my soul.
As they all came toward her, she opened her arms as wide as possible. The woman grabbed all three of her loved ones, husband and both kids, and hugged and kissed them until the CO said, “Okay, that’s enough.”
Later, I would see him sitting at the table alone. Mommy was on the playground with her two kids. They slid on the slide, sat in the sand and walked around the yard talking.
That actually brought tears to my eyes to see her make her kids a priority.
Prison Kids Need Even More Emotional Support
It amazed me, as I looked around, just how many children spent that Christmas day entertaining themselves. Some of the mothers never spent time holding them, laughing with them, playing with them or even talking to them.
Any child being raised by an unemotional, inattentive parent can be condemned to lives of:
- Alcohol/drug abuse
So, add in the fact that the parent is not raising them, but is actually a prison inmate, and you have a recipe for disaster. Prison kids are already under more pressure than others to keep bonds with their incarcerated parents.
These adults need to take responsibility for nurturing those bonds, not their children.
Almost 1/3 of Children Who Visit Dads in Prisons Will Become Prisoners Someday
A seminar was sponsored by University of Florida professors held at Union C.I., Raiford over 30 years ago. An expert there claimed that:
Close to one-third of the children who visit fathers in prison, will one day become prisoners themselves.
Although one-third seems a bit high, I really don’t doubt it.
As I thought about it that Christmas day, I realized that meant that of the about 50 children I counted in the visiting areas, about 16 will also serve time someday.
I’ve watched it happen in my community and within my own family structure. Looking back at my own shady past (80s & 90s), I’ve been very lucky to not follow in the prison footsteps of my father (70s) and my mother (current).
Just read the news and watch series like Lockup and Beyond Scared Straight. You’ll find loads of stories where an inmate ended up doing time with a parent, in the same facility.
There’s even the story of Ron Everett who met his father for the first time when they bumped into each other in prison.
Video: Beyond Scared Straight: Father Meets Son | A&E
A father is doing time in prison while his son runs wild on the streets. He’s sent to the Beyond Scared Straight program at his father’s prison.
Dad pleads with him to change his ways before he ends up in prison with him.
The Epidemic of the Cycle of Generational Incarceration
As I looked around, one lady caught my attention as she smothered her child with love. I looked at the woman who had brought the child. To me, she looked like an ex-con herself.
So, I struck up a conversation with them from the next table while my mom went for the announced bathroom time. She told me that the lady visiting was her mother. And she had in fact done time two decades ago at the same prison.
The inmate had spent most of her childhood visiting her imprisoned mother. Now, here she was in the same adult prison where her mother once did over 10 years.
And the crazier part was that her grandmother had also done prison time. Her mother told me how she also spent her childhood visiting mom in prison, although her mother had been housed at the infamous Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) also known as Chowchilla.
This astonished me. That’s THREE generations of women in California prisons!
Wouldn’t it make more sense to spend tax dollars trying to find the roots of the problems to lead us to solutions while they are still kids than spending $25,000 annually to imprison each one as adults?
It seems our politicians continuously focus on short-term solutions. But we need long-term solutions to help make this a better country altogether. This is especially true since the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
There are so many problems related to prisons in the US. And they’re not going away, even if we ignore them.
It’s been almost 15 years since the day my mom was arrested. So I’ve had a lot of time to think about all of this.
We can give thanks to famous prisoners like Da Brat and Meek Mill, and celebrity prison advocates like Common, Jay Z and J. Cole for bringing attention to the masses.
Even the efforts of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West are commendable. But we need more. We need more celebrities, ex-inmates, politicians, advocates and loved ones to come to the prisons and help fight to make changes.
However, politicians tend to say what we want to hear until their terms are up. They seem to only care about preserving and protecting those pensions. So, who can we trust?
According to Charles Norman of Prison Writers, if we don’t do something soon:
…the societal problems embodied in the thousands upon thousands of wasted lives will only grow.