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Reunification Ride-Logan prison visit

About three dozen children and family members boarded a chartered bus headed to Logan Correctional Center on Dec. 2, 2023. It was part of the Reunification Ride program, which offers free trips for kids to visit their mothers and loved ones at the prison in Lincoln, Ill.

Manuel Martinez

Prison bus trips offer a holiday “lifeline” for kids and incarcerated moms

It’s just after 7 a.m. on a recent Saturday morning, and nine-year-old Caydrian has already had a long day.

“So first, I wake up at three in the morning, and then I brush my teeth and wash my face and do my hair, and then I go in the car, drive to Chicago,” he said, recounting the preparation that brought him to a Home Depot parking lot at 87th Street on the South Side.

Under a light drizzle, Caydrian and about three dozen other children and adults boarded a coach bus. The weather was cold and dreary, but many of the kids on the bus buzzed with anticipation.

Soon they were on their way to Logan Correctional Center, a women’s prison about three hours from Chicago, where many of these children would get to hug their moms for the first time in weeks, if not longer. (WBEZ agreed to use only the first names of children on the trip to protect their privacy.)

Asked if he was nervous to see his mother, Caydrian said, “No, I’m not really nervous. I’m excited now.”

This bus trip is part of a program called the Reunification Ride, which offers free transportation to Logan prison about once a month. The bus makes the round trip in one day: The families leave early in the morning, visit at the prison for about four hours, then head back to Chicago by the evening.

WBEZ attended a Reunification Ride in early December as part of Prisoncast!, an ongoing audio and journalism project to serve people in Illinois prisons and jails, and their loved ones on the outside. During the day-long visit, WBEZ photojournalist Manuel Martinez offered family portrait sessions to incarcerated moms and their children, and audio producers recorded holiday dedications from people inside Logan that aired during a holiday special on Dec. 17th.

Reunification Ride-Logan prison visit-Tarell

Like many children on the Dec. 2 Reunification Ride, Tarell was riding to visit his mother at Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, Ill. The trip to the prison is an all-day affair, with the coach bus loading up before sunrise and returning to Chicago after dark.

Manuel Martinez

Costing about $3,000 to $3,500 each — which covers bus rental, insurance and food— Reunification Rides are almost entirely crowd-funded and staffed by volunteers, said Alexis Mansfield, one of the organizers with the non-profit Women’s Justice Institute.

“We do it as a labor of love, because this is too critical not to have it,” said Mansfield.

The trips are organized by a trio of Chicago nonprofits: the Women’s Justice Institute, Nehemiah Trinity Rising and Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration, with support from Ascend Justice, a local domestic violence legal defense group.

Reunification Ride-Logan prison visit-Aurora

Aurora Sanchez, 20, puts on makeup during the bus trip to Logan prison on Dec. 2. Her mother has been incarcerated since before her first birthday.

Manuel Martinez

Aurora Sanchez, who was on the bus for the Dec. 2 trip, was giddy with excitement to see her mom, Margaret DeFrancisco, who is incarcerated at Logan.

“I stress out about what I’m gonna wear, because I want my mom to see me looking nice,” she said. “It’s like a special occasion. I consider it a holiday for me. It’s like Christmas Eve when you’re waiting for Santa to come.”

Sanchez, who’s in college studying to work in juvenile justice, reflected that she’s been making visits like this for her entire life.

“My mom had to go away November 18th, before I turned one,” Sanchez said. “I’m 20 years old. My mom’s been in prison for 20 years now. It’s just crazy to think about. And, like, she’s never seen me blow out my candles or anything like that.”

When the bus finally arrives, and everyone goes through a security screening, the kids stream into a prison gymnasium with screeches and hugs for their moms. The visit has a holiday theme: The incarcerated mothers have decorated the walls with paper snowflakes and candy canes, there are folding tables piled with board games and coloring books, and soon the reunited families settle into a gingerbread house decorating competition.

Reunification Ride-Logan prison visit-Yamile

Yamile Gonzalez, right, who is incarcerated at Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, IL., colors with her daughter during a recent visit to the prison organized by the Chicago-based Reunification Ride program.

Manuel Martinez

At one table, Katrina Battiste smiled at her 18-year-old son, Khamani, who was visiting from college. She was locked up while she was still pregnant with him. Now, Khamani says he’s an honor roll student studying architecture.

“I always had the feeling and the thought of, ‘How can I leave my baby?’ ” Katrina said. “And now that I see him and he’s grown up and he’s a man now, I just see that … I can be a parent, even [though] my situation. And I’m just happy and grateful.”

Reunification Ride-Logan prison visit-Katrina

Katrina Battiste bonds with her son, Khamani, who’s visiting from college. ‘I am ecstatic,’ she said. ‘I feel like I got the best kid in the world.’

Manuel Martinez

This particular trip was extra special for Dyanna Winchester, who works with the Women’s Justice Institute. That’s because she, herself, was incarcerated inside Logan Correctional Center until her release in 2021.

“Some of the women that I know are visiting with their children, and so I’ll get a chance to hug ‘em and say ‘Hey!’ And I think I am, like, somebody that gives them hope of what is possible once they come out of this,” she said.

Winchester now devotes her career to helping other women re-enter society after being released from incarceration.

“Relationships with your family are important,” Winchester said. She said the Reunification Ride is “like a lifeline for the ladies on the inside. I know it was for me, as well. Because I’ve been there.”

Aurora Sanchez, left, talks with her mother, Margaret DeFrancisco, during the Dec. 2 Reunification Ride visit to Logan Correctional Center.

Aurora Sanchez, left, talks with her mother, Margaret DeFrancisco, during the Dec. 2 Reunification Ride visit to Logan Correctional Center.

Manuel Martinez

As the visit to Logan prison drew to a close, Sanchez and her mom focused intently on decorating their gingerbread house. They huddled together as they worked, occasionally bursting into peals of laughter.

“I’m happy,” Sanchez said. “I’ve never made a gingerbread house with my mom, so this is cool.”

Reunification Ride-Logan prison visit-Dyanna bus

Dyanna Winchester, who works with the Women’s Justice Institute, waits outside the Reunification Ride charter bus for families to arrive early on the morning of Dec. 2, 2023. About three dozen children and family members made the trip to visit Logan Correctional Center to visit women incarcerated there.

Manuel Martinez

Reunification Ride-Logan prison visit-Sandy bus

Reunification Ride staffer Sandy Hall helps a child onto the bus before departure. The program offers free trips to Logan prison so children -- many of them young kids -- can visit there mothers or other loved ones incarcerated there.

Manuel Martinez

Reunification Ride-Logan prison visit-Caydrian

Caylynn and Caydrian were going to Logan to visit their mother. The Reunification Ride staffers play Disney movies and hand out snacks to keep the kids occupied during the long drive from Chicago to Lincoln, Ill.

Manuel Martinez

Reunification Ride-Logan prison visit-bus window

The Reunification Ride program travels to Logan Correctional Center about once a month. Organizers say each trip to Logan Correctional Center costs between $3,000 to $3,000, most of which comes from crowd-sourced funding donations.

Manuel Martinez

Reunification Ride-Logan prison visit-Janet and Sophia

Janet Perez, left, hugs cuddles with her granddaughter, Sophia, on the bus ride down. During the cold months, families might board the bus at 87th St. in Chicago before sunrise, visit at the prison for about four hours, then return to the city well after dark.

Manuel Martinez

Reunification Ride-Logan prison visit-Sophie window

Sophia was going to Logan Correctional Center to visit her mother, who is incarcerated there.

Manuel Martinez

Reunification Ride-Logan prison visit-Sarah Risner

Sarah Risner, left, spends time with her mother during the Reunification Ride visit inside a prison gymnasium. The families get to visit four about four hours before they have to board the bus back to Chicago.

Manuel Martinez

Reunification Ride-Logan prison visit-Sarah Risner

Sarah Risner hugs her son during the Reunification Ride visit on Dec. 2, 2023. Incarcerated women have about four hours during these visits to play games, eat lunch and do crafting activities with their children.

Manuel Martinez

Reunification Ride-Logan prison visit-Yamile and Sophia

Yamile Gonzalez, left, hugs her daughter, Sophia, during the Reunification Ride visit on Dec. 2, 2023.

Manuel Martinez

Reunification Ride-Logan prison visit-Aurora and Margaret

Aurora Sanchez, left, shares a final moment with her mother, Margaret DiFrancisco, before boarding the bus back to Chicago.

Manuel Martinez

Alex Keefe is WBEZ’s engagement editor.

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