Bus takes kids to visit their moms - in prison

By Kavita Kumar, Minneapolis Star Tribune - published September 30, 2000

When the passengers saw the prison's beige buildings come into view amid the cornfields, the thick silence that had pervaded the bus broke.

The weary eyes and stiff bodies perked up. For some, this would be the first time they'd seen their mothers since the women were sent to prison. For others, it had been months or even years since they'd made the 600-mile trip from Minnesota to the federal prison camp for women in Pekin, Illinois.

Pete Glass, 4, who lives with his mother's best friend in St. Paul, bounced in his seat and pointed at the buildings. He was two the last time he'd visited the place he knows as "Mom's house." Before today, he hadn't understood why his mom, Lana, never visited or why he couldn't call her. He thought, maybe, she didn't love him. But that morning, Pete's guardians explained where his mom is, what a prison is and why she is there - serving an eight-year sentence for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. Pete just stared ahead, silently nodding.

Thirteen-year-old Lyndsey Kidd from White Bear Lake was one of two children traveling without a caregiver. Lyndsey and her two brothers live with their grandmother - a situation that has strained the relationship between their grandparents, now separated. For most of the bus ride, Lyndsey listened to her Walkman. Her impassive demeanor did not betray how much these few days - this visit - meant to her.

She had seen her mother, Cheryl, four months earlier, but that felt like a long time ago. "I'm dying without my mom," Lyndsey had said that day. "I miss everything about her."

This bus ride was two years in the making. It had faced so many roadblocks along the way that the inmates and their children sometimes believed it would never happen. But now, on this Friday in August, the bus carrying almost 30 passengers - children and other family members of six inmates - had arrived.

The trip was part of a pilot program of the St. Paul-based Federal FORUM (Females Organizing and Restoring Unity for Mothers), founded by an ex-offender, Mary Gaines, who served time at the Pekin prison. If funding for future trips can be secured, the Children's Federal Transit System will transport children from Minnesota to Illinois four times a year.

The Pekin prison is one of about nine female prison camps - the lowest-level security federal prison - in the country. With others as far away as Texas, Florida and Connecticut, FPC Pekin is the closest to Minnesota. Still, while prison officials try to place women in the prison nearest their home and family, space limitations and other factors mean that many Minnesota mothers are scattered across the country.

Many Minnesota families find it difficult to travel to visit their loved ones because of limited time or money. But through the Federal FORUM-sponsored trip, caregivers and children don't have to worry about paying for hotel rooms or bus fare, or driving the long hours themselves. With funding that almost fell through just days before the trip, the Federal FORUM covered the $2,000 cost of the trip.
Gaines was separated from her three children for nearly eight years while she served her time. She says visits are crucial to help lessen the impact of separation on inmates' children, who are likely to become a second generation of offenders. Studies show the estimated 2 million U.S. children who have an incarcerated parent are likelier to suffer from anger, truancy, early pregnancy, drug abuse and juvenile delinquency.

Her hope is to improve their odds by sustaining family ties. This first trip did not go off without a hitch. The bus arrived in Peoria, Illinois - just 20 minutes from the prison - at about 5:30 a.m. on a Friday, after traveling all night from St. Paul. But reservations at the YWCA had fallen through. The weary travelers spent the morning and the next night at a Holiday Inn, which meant additional costs for the Federal FORUM. This, on top of the fact that the computer had crashed and the fax machine had broken down in the weeks before the trip started. "Everything that could've gone wrong did go wrong," Gaines said. "But it all worked out all right in the end anyway."

When the door opened to admit the women clad in green prison uniforms, a hush fell over the room. For an awkward second no one dared breathe until a squeal of "Mama!" rang out from one of the children. The mothers, with wide smiles and open arms, sought out their families.

A look of recognition flashed over Pete's face when he caught his mother's eye - he knew right away who she was. But he hid under a table across the room. Lana didn't seem to mind Pete's cold reception. She had worried for days that he wouldn't recognize her. Relieved that he did, she chatted with Shannan Madsen, her childhood friend who now has custody of Pete, and Shannan's mother, Lupe. Pete bided his time, sneaking looks at his mom once in a while. After about 15 minutes he emerged from under the table to give her a hug. Tears welled in his eyes when she picked him up and he scrunched up his face to stop the tears.
Lyndsey and her mom had a different sort of reunion. They stood near the doorway, swaying in an embrace, lingering in each other's arms after everyone else had settled down. Cheryl kept her arms around Lyndsey throughout most of the two-day visit. Cheryl examined every inch of her daughter: "You look so big," she said, almost in disbelief. "Stand up and let me look at you."

She noticed all the details only a mother does: Lyndsey's recent nose piercing, the eyeliner, the lost weight. She knew Lyndsey had been biting her fingernails again. And she saw, with surprise, a silver bracelet around Lyndsey's wrist - the same bracelet Cheryl's mother had given to her when she was a girl on the threshold of becoming a woman.

Life for Lyndsey has not been easy in the years since her mother went to jail for conspiracy to distribute drugs. Cheryl, like 65 percent of Pekin's 300 inmates, is a first-time offender in prison for drug-related charges. Because of mandatory minimum sentences, most of these women are in for five to 10 years without parole. That means about four more years for Cheryl. It pains her to miss perhaps the most important years in Lyndsey's life, the years that will determine her future.
Lyndsey exhibits some of the behaviors that are typical of children whose parents are in prison. She attempted suicide last year. She spent the past three months jumping from one juvenile detention center to the next - for cutting class, taking and crashing her grandmother's car, for running away. Her latest mishap resulted in 120 days of house arrest. Cheryl blames herself. "I think Lyndsey is a lot angrier than she should be. She's an unhappy and angry little girl who thinks she got ripped off. ... And she did get ripped off."

Cheryl is quick to accept responsibility. She doesn't make excuses for having been a drug addict or for paying the bills with money earned from drug dealing. But she does think, as do many of the inmates, that her sentence was too harsh. "My crime was over a 10-month period, so you figure I got one year for every month," she said. And while she's away in prison, it's nearly impossible to have any control over her children.

"Lyndsey has said, 'Well, look where you're at,' but what I want to get through to my children is that we're responsible for what we did," Cheryl said. "I keep trying to explain to them that just because I did something doesn't make it right." Still, Cheryl believes that her time in prison has made her a better mother. She's now drug-free, she has gotten her GED certificate and she has renewed her interest in spirituality. And while it tortures Lyndsey to live without her mom, she's thankful her mom is where she is. "I'm glad she's in prison because otherwise she would've been dead or something," Lyndsey said. "She's learned her lesson, so she won't do it again."

"But I didn't need eight years to figure that out," her mother added. "The real punishment here isn't the fence, but being away from your kids and family. But their suffering is probably more than mine."

When the mothers entered the visiting room the next morning, the hellos were more effusive and the hugs were more passionate. It had taken a few hours of getting used to one another the previous day before the feelings of abandonment and anger had lessened somewhat.

This time, Pete met Lana at the door with a big hug and kiss. He spent the day playing outside on a slide, calling over to his mother once in a while: "Mama, I can see you!" From time to time, Lana swung Pete on her hip - the way she did when he was just a few months old, the way she did before she went to prison. They did not discuss where she was and why she was there. "He noticed the officer was watching us, but I'm not sure he really realizes what's going on yet," Lana said. "I think in the next year or so he will start asking questions and I don't know what I'm going to say."

By mid-afternoon, the air in the visiting room became tense. Voices were more hushed, tempers flared. Everyone knew the visit was drawing to an end.
Lyndsey promised her mom she wouldn't cry this time - and she didn't. But Cheryl was so overcome with emotion that she couldn't speak; she just clung to her daughter. Pete's guardians and his mother had worried about this part of the trip. The last time Pete visited, he cried the whole way back to St. Paul. This time, he played with a remote-control car on the floor while everyone else said his or her teary good-byes. Lana gave him a quick hug, whispered something in his ear, and then he walked out the door - as though he were coming back tomorrow, as though he didn't know what was going on.

But as the bus pulled out of the parking lot, he pressed his face against the window and watched the beige buildings disappear. He didn't cry; he just stared with great intensity. Lyndsey glanced back at the prison once or twice, and then clamped on her headphones and turned up the music, lost in thought.

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