Tajanae Jacobs stood in the pre-dawn light, waiting to board the bus that would carry her and her three siblings from San Leandro through more than 100 miles of Central Valley haze.
At the end of that journey would be Tajanae’s mother, an inmate in a high-security women’s prison in Chowchilla. It was May 7, nearly Mother’s Day.
Tajanae’s younger brother, Jaquan Smith, 12, pulled her close, his head buried in her shoulder. Their twin sisters, 10-year-olds Janique and Unique Smith, stood a few feet ahead, craning their heads in awe of the idling bus.
In an annual ritual, this fleet of buses would bring these children and about 700 others from the far reaches of the state to California’s three women’s prisons.
At least 200,000 children in California have a parent serving time in state prison, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The children are scattered across the state, often living with relatives, friends or foster families.
Dennis Flannery, wiry and upbeat, greeted dozens of children at the curb. He is a longtime organizer with Get on the Bus, the nonprofit that sponsors the trip. The early hour did not dampen the kids’ enthusiasm. One boy, holding a Shrek blanket tight around his shoulders, repeatedly hopped up and down before he boarded.
Flannery has seen these emotional highs and lows. He cautioned that the day would end more solemnly than it started. “There’s this great sense of anticipation,” he said. “When we leave, it’s not so great.”
During the two-hour trip, Tajanae stared blankly out the window with bloodshot eyes, the only sound the low hum of the engine, as shadowy rows of crops streaked by. “It’s hard on me the most, because I was left to look after my sisters,” Tajanae said. “A lot of people in the family… we got separated ever since my mom went away.”
Tajanae’s mother was sent to prison six years ago, convicted of robbery and drug possession in Richmond. Tajanae was 8, and she and her twin sisters went to live with an aunt in San Francisco. Her brother Jaquan has bounced between relatives in Los Angeles and, most recently, a family friend in Richmond. He said he’s changed schools at least three times.
Jaquan hopes he can stay in Richmond until his mom’s release in December 2015.
This is the fourth year they have ridden the Mother’s Day bus to the Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla.
“The hardest part is having to go, having to say goodbye to your mom,” Jaquan said.
Upon arrival at the prison, a complex of drab structures jutting out from the central California plains, the visitors filed down a line of seated corrections officers who checked IDs and birth certificates. They then walked through the metal detectors and passed through the buzz and clang of the mechanized gates buttressed with razor wire. Guard towers loomed overhead.
The four siblings were led to a large multipurpose room with dozens of other visitors where they waited for their mother to emerge.
A few hours earlier, Saprina Fletcher, 38, had risen from her bed in the cell she shares with more than a half-dozen inmates. Fletcher’s eyelids were heavy; she hadn’t slept. “I stayed up all night thinking about this visit,” she said. “I was overwhelmed, wondering what I’m going to say to my kids.”
Now, Fletcher, still weary, emerged from a hallway.
“Mama! Mama!” the twins shrieked as they bolted towards Fletcher, joined by Tajanae and Jaquan, who initially held back.
For the next four hours, Fletcher played games with her kids. The twins got their faces painted. Tajanae bought sugary and salty snacks for the briefly re-united family. The twins laughed and spoiled their lunch appetites by munching on candy and chips.
The family’s mood was mostly light, but a few moments hinted at the widening gulf between them. The kids live in a rapidly advancing world, while, for their mother, time stands still. Tajanae told her mom about how she uses text messaging, email and social networking websites. As the teenager tried to explain, her mom’s brow furrowed in confusion.
Fletcher clutched her children every chance she got as the clock wound down on the visit.
When the day was nearly done, Fletcher walked a few paces away from the outdoor table where they had been sitting. In her prison blues, she looked older than her 38 years. She stared at her children.
“I’m afraid,” she said, her normally commanding voice much softer. “My fear is that I will never bond with them.”
Fletcher paused. She looked down, then up again.
“My fear is being forgotten.”
Fletcher’s absence weighs heavy on her children’s lives, particularly for Jaquan, who finds himself alone, repeatedly uprooted and uncertain of the future.
A week after visiting his mom, Jaquan was hanging out at the community center in Parchester Village, an impoverished, high-crime subdivision in Richmond where he lives with family friends.
He said he knows there will probably be more changes. “It’s hard,” he said. “You make friends, then you got to go and you might not see them again.”
When his mother is released in 5 years, Jaquan will be 17.
“Sometimes I dream about me and my mom,” Jaquan said. “We still be living together, we were never separated, and I don’t have to be living in all kinds of different houses and places.”