By Gretchen Kell,
Spending Father’s Day in prison might sound grim, but dozens of Bay Area youngsters and their incarcerated dads couldn’t wait to be reunited last weekend in Soledad.
They spentfour hours together hugging, talking, eating and playing games through a statewide program called Get on the Bus, which considers UC Berkeley “a flagship” among California schools for the dedication of its student volunteers.
Every Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, Get on the Bus provides free transportation to California prisons for hundreds of children and their caregivers in an effort to keep families separated by crime intact. UC Berkeley students not only accompany the children to prison, but raise more than $4,000 a year to sponsor bus trips, help families prepare their paperwork, and run a class on campus about the prison system’s effects on the family.
“These visits help parents and kids get important questions answered, like ‘Am I still loved? Do I still matter?’” said UC Berkeley alumna Alayna Johnson, the Northern California regional coordinator for Get on the Bus.
“A four-hour visit may not seem like much to the general population, but those four hours mean everything to these families. If they didn’t, people wouldn’t ride a bus for up to 10 hours one way, just for that precious time.”
UC Berkeley junior Julie McCormick knows firsthand how important it is for kids to stay connected to their parents behind bars. During her K-12 years, her mother served three different sentences. Traveling hours to prison was expensive for the family, as were the rates for prison phone calls.
“I tried to treat Mother’s Day like any other day, or just block it from my memory completely,” said McCormick, who is a Get on the Bus volunteer. “I went through practically my entire childhood, and over half my life, without her.”
Forty percent of inmates never get a visit in prison, said Johnson. If they did, she added, research shows their chances of relapsing into crime would drop, and their children would be more emotionally and socially adjusted, and less likely to commit crimes.
UC Berkeley students are so serious about this issue that, in 2011, they began a Get on the Bus class on campus. It is one of many DeCal (Democratic Education at Cal) courses, which are pass/no pass, initiated by students and sponsored by faculty.
The class hosts trips on Mother’s Day to the California Institution for Women in Corona and on Father’s Day to Soledad’s Correctional Training Facility and Salinas Valley State Prison. The 16 students in last year’s class also toured San Quentin State Prison.
“Our Get on the Bus students go beyond typical volunteerism to having a holistic understanding of the issue, and developing true empathy for the people they serve. It really helps to humanize the issue for the student volunteers,” said recent UC Berkeley graduate Rahkii Holman, who taught the 2012-13 course. McCormick will help teach the course that begins in the fall.
Katherine Culpepper, executive director of the Center for Restorative Justice Works, a non-profit based in Southern California that runs Get on the Bus, said many college students are Get on the Bus volunteers, but that UC Berkeley “is our flagship for what we’d love other colleges and universities to do.”
“Its approach, with the educational component of a class to teach how incarceration affects the family, goes further than any other effort by our 1,000 Get on Bus volunteers,” she said. “This is important work, and we can realistically expect that these Berkeley students will be informed and effective advocates for this cause for decades to come.”