Dozens of families split apart because their loved ones are in prison will get a rare chance to reunite on Mother's Day, thanks to an unusual program backed by the Los Angeles Police Department and bankrolled by a local businessman.
"Family ties are the most positive factor that we can have in rehabilitation," LAPD Deputy Chief Mark Kroeker said Wednesday at a news conference called to announce Operation Family Reunion. "We are very excited about the program. We don't think it's a cure-all, but we have a fundamental belief in the family and its positive effect on people."
Under the program, 40 mothers and wives will get a free trip to San Quentin over the Mother's Day weekend next month.
Sam Theus, who heads the HELP Public Service Foundation, dreamed up the idea, and Tom Nix, president of a check-cashing business, put up the money. Although the Police Department is not providing any funds, Kroeker brought Theus and Nix together and endorsed the project, which he and the other sponsors said could benefit law enforcement and the community by ensuring that inmates return home with stronger bonds to their families and neighborhoods.
"We can help these people now," Theus said, "or they can help themselves to us later."
At the news conference, mothers of two inmates tearfully thanked the sponsors for a program that will give them the opportunity to visit their sons in the faraway penitentiary, located north of San Francisco.
"I want (my son) to know that when he comes home, he comes home to a family that loves him and a church that's still behind him," said Catalina Weaver, whose son has been convicted of murder and is on Death Row at San Quentin. "He needs to see my face."
Weaver, whose son was arrested the day before Mother's Day in 1992, said she has occasionally been able to visit but only with the help of her family and church. "Every time I go, I have to find the funds," she said. "It's always a struggle."
Theus said he is convinced Operation Family Reunion will soften prisoners' antipathy toward police and ease their return to society once they are freed from prison. Visitation, according to Theus and police officials, is one of the strongest elements of rehabilitation: Prisoners who get more frequent visits are far more inclined to resist the temptation to return to crime when they get out.
In addition, prisoners who receive visitors generally behave better behind bars, prison experts say. That is because visitation is a privilege that can be taken away, so inmates who have visitors tend to follow rules lest they jeopardize their privileges.
Theus raised all those issues with Kroeker when the two first met several months ago. Kroeker said he quickly agreed that the program had merit, so he called Nix, who has contributed to a number of causes, and asked for his support.
"We were pleased to step up to the plate," said Nix, the president and founder of Nix Check Cashing.
Nix is supplying enough money to pay for the Mother's Day bus, which will leave on May 6. Funding for future buses still has not been arranged, but Theus said he hopes contributions will make it possible to run buses regularly.
"There's no reason that a bus like this couldn't go every week," Kroeker said. "The more the visitation, the better the re-entry."
For Geneva McClintock, whose 32-year-old son is serving 15 years to life at San Quentin, that prospect is the only thing that sustains her hope.
"My son needs us to visit so that he knows we love him," said McClintock, who added that that neither she nor her husband have a job, making it difficult for them to pay for trips north. "These people are letting us go."