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A new California law aims to keep incarcerated parents close to their children

San Jose Mercury News - 7/5/2023

The first prison Amika Mota entered was in Chino, an agonizingly long 10-hour drive from her children.

During her two years in the California Institution for Women, Mota got to see 14-year-old Milo, 11-year-old Soleil and 6-year-old Blossom only once and mostly communicated through letters. Mota would write to her children once a week, but the letters couldn’t capture the joy of being in the same room.

A case manager helped Mota get relocated to another women’s prison only two and a half hours away, and she was able to see her kids more frequently.

A bill headed to the governor for approval could go a long way in eliminating some of the pain and anxiety of separation by requiring the state to place incarcerated parents in prisons located closest to their minor children. Assembly Bill 1226 was passed by the Senate Thursday night. California would become the second state with such a law, following the lead of New York.

“All of us, whether we are Republicans or Democrats, have children in our districts who have done nothing wrong and who have been separated from their parent due to incarceration,” Democratic Assemblymember and co-author Matt Haney said. “It’s common sense that we shouldn’t place that parent on the other side of the state if we don’t have to.”

About 195,000 children in California have parents in state prisons, but only 25% of incarcerated parents are placed in institutions less than 100 miles from home, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. And that makes a difference in keeping in touch: 50% of people placed less than 50 miles away from home receive “frequent family visitation,” but only 15% of people 500 miles away “receive visitors,” according to a document from the Senate Committee on Public Safety.

Advocates say that family visits benefit both children and parents, and research backs up their claims. On the parents’ side, a study by the National Institutes of Health found that more frequent visitation decreases the likelihood of recidivism, improves overall well-being and prevents in-prison rule-breaking. On the children’s side, maintaining a strong parent-child relationship means the child will be more likely to overcome challenges such as psychological strain, antisocial behavior, difficulty in school, economic hardship and involvement with the criminal justice system, according to a study in the National Institute of Justice.

“I had a parent who used to drive her kids to see their dad and she used to bring their weekly packets of homework,” said Ivana Cortez, family unity coordinator for Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. “And it was the kids’ dad who used to sit at the visiting room and help the kids with homework. Involving (the father) in their education is just a big win for the children and for the father.”

Mota, who now serves as executive director for the Sister Warriors Freedom Coalition, says there are hundreds of other women in California with a similar story to hers.

Jalyssa Richardson was about 6 years old when her mother, Barbara Chavez, was sent to prison six hours away from where she lived. Despite being labeled a model inmate, Chavez wasn’t able to transfer to another prison due to her security status. As a result, Richardson said she only got to see her mom a few times a year.

“Even the thought of this (bill) passing and children being able to have access to their incarcerated parents just brings me so much joy,” Richardson said. “I think if my mom would have been accessible to me, it would have bridged this huge gap. I think … it would have given me and my brothers this sense of security and safety that a child needs when it comes to being around their parent.”

Mota saw a similar impact on her own children. After she transferred to Chowchilla and her children were able to visit more often, Mota said that her middle child, who was 13 at the time, could speak with her privately about topics like getting her first period and other challenges that come with growing into a young woman.

“Those kinds of visits were really sacred to us,” Mota said. “She knew that she would get some alone time with me where she’d be able to talk about the hard stuff.”

Mota’s youngest daughter Blossom Sergejev, now 21, said she couldn’t wait to see her mom.

“My sister would show me the letters that she saved, but … I was a kid. I was young. I didn’t really understand the letters,” she recalled. “Like, this is not my mom. I can’t smell her. I can’t touch her.”

“I remember when we’d go into the visiting room, and we’d have to wait for her to come out … I would stare at the door,” Sergejev said. As soon as her mom entered the room, Sergejev darted toward her and wouldn’t let go. “It’s like no other feeling. … I couldn’t imagine not having any contact.”

The bill will allow newly incarcerated parents to be placed in correctional facilities nearest their children. It does not require the automatic relocation of people who are currently imprisoned, but location will be taken into consideration if an inmate’s security status changes, or if a minor child moves closer to a different prison.

“The power of legislation in this is huge,” Mota said. “And (with) incarceration, we are being punished and we are being removed from the world. But our children and our loved ones pay for that as well. And the ripple effect of not having a parent is rough. So I think it’s going to make such a big difference for the children of incarcerated parents.”

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