CHINO, California (Reuters) - On a recent Saturday morning, hundreds of sleepy children tumbled out of buses and into a dusty jail parking lot in southern California to pay a rare visit to their mothers in prison.
A hundred feet (Thirty meters) away, behind two tall barbed wire fences at the California Institute for Women, stood a cluster of women clad in blue cotton prison garb. They anxiously craned their necks and stood on tip-toes for a glimpse of their kids, some of whom had come to the prison roughly 90 minutes by bus from south central Los Angeles.
Then came the moment of reunification - mothers jumping up and down excitedly, shouting “hi baby, give me a hug,” with tears in their eyes as they embrace their children, some for the first time in years.
One of those women was Norma Ortiz, 31, who is one year into an eight-year jail sentence for drug trafficking.
Ortiz gave premature birth to a baby boy, 11-month-old Axel, at the prison, and had not seen him since.
“I can’t talk about that,” she said when asked about what it felt like to see her son again. Surrounded by her older sons and her mother Olga, 55, she said: “I need to be strong for them.”
Women who give birth in prison usually have to hand over their newborn to a relative or for adoption within 48 hours, according to Dana Simas, spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
“It’s generally within 48 hours but its within doctor’s orders. Whenever the doctor releases the inmate from the hospital,” Simas said.
That narrow window deprives new mothers of the option of breastfeeding their children, said Karen van de Laat, the southern California regional director for the group that organized the special Mother’s Day visit, called Get on the Bus.
“Having access to your mom should be a right. Being able to hug your mom should be a right,” said van de Laat. “Some of these kids would rather live here with their mom than go home.”
Most of the women in this prison are drug offenders or have been incarcerated for check or welfare fraud, she said.
Get on the Bus arranged for four bus loads of children and their families, totaling roughly 240 visitors, to come from as far away as the San Francisco Bay area to see their mothers on May 5 for a few hours.
The visits are rare occasions for families to be reunited. Sixty percent of parents in California state prisons report being held over 100 miles from their children, making visits impossible for many.
A child’s chances of delinquency increase dramatically when visits to their incarcerated parents are denied, according to Get on the Bus. Such denials can happen for any number of reasons, upsetting months of planning and paperwork.
Tanya Fealings, 47, brought her grandson, 7-year-old Levell, to see his mother in prison for the first time in a year.
Fealings’ daughter, 28-year-old Shonta Montgomery, is serving a six-year prison sentence for voluntary manslaughter.
“She shouldn’t be here,” Fealings said. “She’s not the type who’s in and out of prison.” She said her daughter graduated from high school and worked for the Los Angeles Housing Authority before getting into a fight in which she hit a man in the back of the head. After nine months in the hospital, the man died and Montgomery was arrested for manslaughter.
“It was an accident. She didn’t mean for him to die,” Fealings said. Mother and daughter sat close together in the prison yard, watching over Levell as he ran around laughing with other children, a pink heart pinned to his t-shirt.
Montgomery started to cry as she recounted the life she leads in prison. She said guards search her room every other day, leaving her living space disheveled in their wake. It is difficult to get boxes of hair supplies sent by her mother into the prison. Some of the other women bicker over basic supplies such as noodles and envelopes because goods can be scarce. She has gained weight because of limited food options.
“It’s going to be okay. Hang on,” Fealings told her.
Nearly 900,000 children in California have a parent in the criminal justice system, according to the organization, making up nearly ten percent of California’s children.
Regular contact between incarcerated parents and their children can help with readjustment once the parent gets out of prison and provide an incentive to not go back to prison, van de Laat said. Inmates who do not receive such visits are six times more likely to be reoffenders.
Corrections department spokeswoman Simas said there is no restriction on children visiting incarcerated mothers but the remote location of the prison makes it hard for families to transport the kids to their mothers.
She said on rare occasions a visit might be canceled because of a lockdown at the prison. Visits also might be canceled for disciplinary reasons, corrections officials said.
“We encourage visiting and we try to make visiting as positive an experience as possible. We understand that family relationships are a big contribution to someone’s successful rehabilitation. Unfortunately, they are still incarcerated so there are safety measures we need to follow but we try to make it as family-friendly as possible,” Simas said.
At the end of the prison visit, inmate Ortiz hugs her children and her mother goodbye before a prison guard escorts them from the visiting room. She silently watches her family walk away, wiping away tears and blowing kisses.
Montgomery hugs her son and mother goodbye before lining up to return to her cell. Fealings said she has no idea when she might see her daughter again, but she hopes maybe next year, on the next Mother’s Day.
Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Greg McCune and Vicki Allen