Sunday, March 25, 2007

CDCR Kicks Off First-Ever Chowchilla Family Express to Bus Children to Visit Incarcerated Mothers

New Gender-Responsive Strategies Program Provides Free Transportation to Help Better Unite Inmate Families

CHOWCHILLA - The first busloads from the Chowchilla Family Express arrived at the women's prisons here today, carrying children and family members of inmates, as the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) began a new program to help female inmates and their families remain connected during incarceration.

Funded by CDCR and Women and Criminal Justice with an $400,000 annual budget, the new bus program will bring children to their parents housed in Valley State Prison for Women (VSPW) and Central California Women's Facility (CCWF) from various parts of California every Sunday. The program is in recognition of how valuable family reunification is to the welfare of children and the eventual post-prison success of inmates. The program will send an average of six buses each month from northern and southern California, and is currently scheduled through September 2007.

"We are excited about the Chowchilla Family Express because it provides yet another rehabilitative option for so many women offenders," said CDCR Associate Director, Female Offender Programs and Services, Wendy Still, who noted that the majority of those inmates are mothers. "This bus program provides unique opportunities for female offenders to reunite with their children, who are in most cases hundreds of miles away. We remain committed to extending our responsibility for female offenders beyond their incarceration to improve their chances of success when they return to their communities."

More than half of the women in state prisons never see their children during their incarceration. Some of the children traveling in today's event or future events have not seen their mothers in more than a year. National Institute of Corrections research shows that children who have regular parent visits demonstrate better emotional and social adjustment as well as a lower degree of juvenile delinquency. In addition, their parents demonstrate lower rates of recidivism and of higher rates of family reunification when they are released. An important part a female offender's rehabilitation is building and strengthening systems of family support and family involvement while she is in prison. Their support can enhance their eventual return and success in their community.

Planning for the new bus service began nearly two years ago, following the success of the Get on the Bus program jointly sponsored by CDCR and the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles. That program began in 1998 but only operated on Mother's Day and Father's Day weekends. The Chowchilla Family Express expands that program.

"Visitation programs are a cost-effective crime prevention tool," said Eric DeBode, Executive Director for the Chowchilla Family Express. "By helping to maintain family bonds, the Chowchilla Family Express will help parents and children stay together and hopefully reduce the likelihood of people re-offending-and that's good for everyone."

The actual work for families and their children begins several months in advance of their trip. Trained volunteers meet with families to process the paperwork needed for prison visits. On the day of the trip, families and volunteers meet buses at various locations to travel to Chowchilla. The trip is usually a long one, and children are served breakfast, and given a bag of age-appropriate activities suitable for travel. When they arrive at the prison, they will spend several hours visiting, sharing a meal, and having a family photograph taken. This photograph often becomes one of the most treasured remembrances of the day for the mother and her children.

"This is a blessing because so many of the women have been estranged from their families for so long," wrote inmates involved in the Women's Advisory Council at Central California Women's Facility. "To reunite with your loved ones is a blessing."

Participating in today's event were Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), who worked closely with CDCR and the Archdiocese to ensure funding; Wendy Still, Associate Director of CDCR Female Offender Programs and Services; Sister Suzanne Jabro, Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles; Eric DeBode, Executive Director of the Chowchilla Family Express; VSPW Warden (A) Tina Hornbeak; and CCWF Chief Deputy Warden Mary Lattimore.

Background: As part of its comprehensive female offender reform efforts, the CDCR created a strategic plan in 2006 to improve outcomes for female offenders. It implemented gender-appropriate operational practices, programming, medical, mental health and dental care, and "wrap-around" treatment programs and services. CDCR, using previously cited research, found that female offenders differ from their male counterparts in a variety of ways. For example, a female offender is likely to have been the primary caretaker of young children at the time of her arrest, to have experienced physical and/or sexual abuse, and have distinct physical and mental health needs.