Dressed in her Sunday best — pink ruffled sleeves and a rainbow tulle tutu — Crystal Martinez’s 4-year-old daughter proudly presents her with a multicolored bouquet of carefully crafted tissue paper flowers. With her 5-year-old son nestled on her lap, laughing in delight, Martinez holds out her arms and pulls the girl into a hug so tight that her glasses are knocked askew.
“I want you! I don’t want the flowers,” Martinez says , smiling and holding her children close.
Martinez’ five children, including the three aged 13, 10 and 6, last month traveled for three hours from Chicago to visit her in Logan Correctional, Illinois’ largest state prison for women and transgender people, on the Reunification Ride. The donation-dependent initiative buses prisoners’ family members 180 miles from the city to Logan every month so they can spend time with their mothers and grandmothers.
The number of incarcerated women in the United States dropped by tens of thousands because of COVID-19. But as the criminal justice system returns to business as usual and prison populations creep back to pre-pandemic norms, more children are being separated from their mothers, putting them at greater risk of health and behavioral problems and making them vulnerable to abuse and displacement.
The kids and their caregivers meet at 7 a.m. at a South Side big box store parking lot, bleary-eyed but excited. Organizers hand out snacks, games, water and coloring supplies as they get on the road.
Three hours later, the charter bus pulls up at the facility’s barbed wire gates in Lincoln, Illinois, with children peering from the windows. As families progress slowly through security, shouts of “Mommy!” and squeals of glee fill the prison gym made cheerful with handmade decorations.
“We are seeing more and more families separated,” said Alexis Mansfield, Reunification Ride coordinator for the Women’s Justice Institute.
About 58% of women in state or federal prisons are parents of minor children in the U.S. Black and Latina women experience greater incarceration rates than white women and are about as likely or more likely to be parents, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Although women are far less likely to be imprisoned than men, their incarceration can have outsized effects on families, Mansfield said. She has witnessed children reuniting with their incarcerated mothers after months or years apart who “immediately disclose that they’re being abused or that they’re facing a challenge at school.”
Programs like Reunification Ride that offer recurring visits are rare in the U.S., Fedock said.
“Most states don’t have such opportunities,” she said. “There’s a real lack of consistent resources, particularly these types of transportation programs.”
University of Chicago researchers found only one similar initiative in a nationwide sweep, Hour Children in New York, Fedock said.
Maintaining the maternal bond can reduce “the traumatic effects of parental incarceration for those children and their families,” Fedock explained. “Every constraint on the parent constrains the parenting relationship.”
Nyia Pritchett says she was unable to visit her mother, Latonyia Dextra, without Reunification Ride. Before the trip, the 27-year-old had not seen Dextra in person for three years.
Pritchett, who lives an hour outside of Chicago, awoke at 4 a.m. to catch the bus.
Pritchett weeps as she recounts the time spent without her mother. Dextra holds her and wipes away her tears.
Dextra says her children give her hope and that “this program means a lot.”
The Reunification Ride, formerly the recipient of public funds that dried up in 2015 during Illinois’ two-year budget impasse, has been adopted by nonprofits that rely on crowdsourcing and volunteers to keep the program alive. Each trip costs about $3,000 to $3,500.
The programs offer a child-friendly, welcoming alternative to the strict rules of a typical visit behind glass or in small visitor spaces where kids struggle to sit still, without games or food, Ray says.
“There wasn’t any program like this” when Jada was a child, Ray says, watching her grandson zoom happily around the gym.
But even as an adult, Lesure says, “I need my mom. Everybody needs their mom.”