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For many family members with dads in prison, instead of filling out greeting cards on Father’s Day, they’re signing paperwork. They strategize how to make long and often expensive trips, not to hiking spots or sentimental locations, but to remote facilities hundreds of miles from their homes. And instead of spending the day showering their family members with gratitude, they have 45 minutes to an hour behind a plexiglass window.
These are the routines a California program called Get On the Bus aims to make easier for families. Volunteers and students spend months helping to prepare the required visitation paperwork, background checks, and fundraising efforts so family members can make the trip to see loved ones around Mother’s and Father’s Day.
This Saturday the visit was to Soledad Prison in Monterey, California. It began at daybreak in the parking lot of Fruitvale BART station. Rahkii Holman is a volunteer and facilitator with Get on The Bus and also taught a class on the program at UC Berkeley. He says that for many families, the time and money it takes to see incarcerated loved ones can make visitation hard if not impossible.
“Some families rely on this program to see their family every year. If it wasn’t for Get on The Bus, they wouldn’t see their family,” Holman says.
Brenda Brown, from Oakland, California is one of those families.
“I do have two daughters and just trying to raise them and work, it just got in the way. But I knew that it was time,” she said.
Right at dawn, Brown was waiting with one of her daughters to get on the bus to visit Mark Ritchie, her ex-husband whom she hadn’t seen in eight years. While she said her daughters spoke to him regularly on the phone, she knew that wasn’t enough.
“It was time for face to face. I knew they had to go and see him, and so do I.”
Inmates are responsible for reaching out to their families through the program to ask for a visit. Some, ultimately, say no. But more often than not, Rahkii says, family members agree to go and begin the long process of getting approved for a visit. For some, the journey to visitation stops at the background check. Outstanding warrants or lack of proper identification can bar individuals from going with the group.
But for those who can join, the benefits aren’t just personal.
According to a study released by the Minnesota Department of Correction, visits can have positive effects on inmates’ behavior. The research shows that a visit from an in-law reduced chances of recidivism by 21 percent, a visit from a sibling reduced it by 10 percent, and a visit by any other relative reduced it by 9 percent.
“This is when I start to get all touchy-feely,” said Holman, who the morning of the trip was checking in with families and giving out goodie-bags filled with blankets, snacks and water bottles. “I think when people feel cared for their behavior changes. I was studying psychology up at UC Berkeley but it doesn’t even take a psychologist to know. When people feel like they’re cared for, I’m talking about the inmates and the families, they’re going to act right. You have something more to look forward to. You feel like your life matters. You feel valued.”
Brenda Brown sees another opportunity, not just for her ex-husband, but for her daughters.
“I think having them actually see him will help them as they get older, to see that it’s not where they want to end up.”