An Emotional Journey

 

Story by Diane Toroian Keaggy
St. Louis Post Dispatch
Tuesday, June 24 2008

 

Seven-year old Tashanna Drummer rips into her bag marked “S” for snack.  She chews marshmallow rope, slurps fruit punch and sucks on Jolly Ranchers.  Two hours later, Tashanna is on the verge of vomiting.  But now, the sugar sustains the happiness she has felt since the night before when her grandmother, Warnetta Drummer, braided her hair for this special trip.  She’s going to see her mom in prison.

“It’s so fun on the bus and I love the snacks and food and juices they give us so we won’t be hungry and the coloring books and I can’t wail until we get to prison so we can see mom and I love her all of the time and I can’t wait to see her,”  Tashanna says, finally taking a breath.

Tashanna and 26 other children and their guardians are taking a 2-hour bus trip from St. Vincent DePaul Church in Soulard to the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia, MO.  For Tashanna and many others, this is their first trip in a year.

Sitting behind Tashanna are her little brother and sister, 6-year old twins Xavier and Latavier.

Behind them is her grandmother, Warnetta Drummer, who is trying – and failing – to get some sleep.

That’s the story of her life.  She had her first baby at age 12.  Now, at 48, she’s raising her daughter’s little ones.  Tashanna’s brother Lamonte, 10, is supposed to be here too, but he did not come home last night.

“He be hanging out with some bad boys,’  Tashanna says.  “They smoke weed.”

Soon “High School Musical” is playing on the video screens on the bus and within minutes Tashanna and several other young girls softly sing along.  The designer fashions and luxury locker room of East High bear little resemblance to their realities.

“My mom went to prison because she was hanging out with her friends and she got locked up,” Tashanna says.

Here’s how the state sees it:  Latasha Drummer got locked up for first degree robbery, stealing, assault and armed criminal action.  On May 30, 2001, she and two of her friends tried to carjack a vehicle.  Latasha was pregnant with the twins when she started to serve her 15 – year sentence.

As the bus approaches the prison, Tashanna and her siblings start screaming with excitement.

The complex of low-slung red buildings looks more like a dairy than a prison.  Families pull out plastic bags and quarters.  Inside they will buy their inmates sodas, chips – even chicken wings – from the vending machines.

“It’s right there!  It’s right there!” says Xavier as the bus draws near.

“Sit down, boy,” barks his grandmother.

A few days before the trip, Sister Jackie Toben reviews the list of families scheduled to ride the bus.

“I’ve known him since he was a baby,” she says when she comes to Lamonte’s name.  “It’s true these moms have made some bad choices.  But these children have done nothing.  Nothing.”

Toben organized the first bus trip nine years ago.  Located 100 miles northwest of St. Louis, the facility houses 1,933 women.  Most of them are mothers, whose children’s lives move forward – with or without them.  About 30 percent of the women have children under the age of 18; 20 percent have children younger than 12.  At any given time, some 40 to 50 inmates are pregnant; they arrive that way, the Department of Corrections is quick to note.  Like Drummer, they are driven to hospitals to have their babies and are back in prison within a day.

Toben believes faith can help kids cope with the separation.  She also believes, as does the Missouri Department of Corrections, that the best way to get moms to succeed after prison is to keep them connected to their families.

“Kids don’t look at their mothers as criminals; they look at them as Mom,” Toben says.  “The reality is most of these women come back to the community.  They are going to have to develop a relationship with that child.”

For years, the prison allowed the children to make quarterly “special visits”, which included an activity and a meal together.  But last year Toben was told another group would run the special visits.  The kids could come, she was told, but only during regular visiting hours.  The practical effect to that policy change is that fewer children can see their moms, Toben says, because the visiting room only holds so many.  And Toben would just die if a child made the trip but could not get in.

“It’s not ideal, but the heart of the visit is the relationship between mom and child,” Toben says.  “What matters here is that we really, really support these kids so that the cycle of incarceration can be broken.  I will never forget when Roosevelt told me he thought incarceration is inherited, like brown eyes.”

Roosevelt is Roosevelt Roberts, an 24-year old engineering student.  Today he and his girlfriend Taylor Shelton, another bus veteran, are helping Toben develop a pilot program for University City students who have an incarcerated parent.

Both of their mothers were caught stealing.  Both are now out and doing well, they say.

Roberts remembers his times on the bus as well as the times he refused to go.

“I thought that was her punishment, not seeing me,”  Roberts says.  “But when I did go, there was nothing but smiles.  That’s what I remember.  That and her wanting cigarettes.  It relieved stress you don’t even know you have.  When you’re right in front of her and get to touch her and see her, you get a whole different type of satisfaction.”

Shelton was too embarrassed to tell her friends her mom was in prison.

“That’s not something you’re proud to talk about,” Shelton says.  “I understood why she was there and I was (angry).  When I would write or call her, I’d sometimes let her know it.  But never on a visit.  That was our time and I didn’t want anything bad to happen.  I would never cry.”

“It’s not easy holding back the tears.  Jernice Wright broke down when she said goodbye to her daughter-in-lae, recently imprisoned for misappropriating funds.

“She’s been crying all day,” Wright says, nodding toward her 8-year old granddaughter, scrunched up on two seats, trying to sleep.  Wright cradles her 2-year old grandson in her lap.  “I didn’t want her to come, but my daughter-in-law wanted to see her so bad.  I hated it in there.  They (prison personnel) are in charge of them so they want to be in charge of you.  Like when they said, ’Everyone on the bus, it’s time for you to go so don’t even say bye.’ Who are you talking to?”

The regulars are used to the heaving emotions and personal indignities that come with every visit.  The Department of Corrections denied the Post-Dispatch permission to enter the prison; the families had to wait for nearly an hour for guards to complete the standard strip-search of inmates.  What was scheduled to be a three-hour visit turned out to be two.

“I cried one time,” recalls Warneta Drummer.  “And one lady told me to stop ‘cause you don’t want the kids to see your crying.  She said, “I know it’s hard, it’s hard on me too.  But I’ve gotten over that point.  I’m fine now.”

Drummer describes the visit with her incarcerated daughter as “beautiful”.  The children drew her pictures for her cell and played outside on a small playground with a swing set and a dinosaur slide.

“She asked me about Lamonte and I said, “Girl, your son is just like you. He don’t want to listen,” Drummer says with a laugh that turns into a long sigh.  “Yes, it was a nice visit.  She still has a chance to be a mom.”

Drummer looks like she’s finally about to get that shut-eye, when Tashanna asks to go to the bathroom.  Though most of the children are resting or playing cards, Tashanna is bouncing up and down in her seat, reciting the day’s highlights over and over.

“We had a great time and we played on the swings and it was fun and she gave us kisses and we kissed her and we kissed her again and” – deep breath – “then we got a game and we played with it and when we had to go she said, ‘Give me a kiss and give me a big ol’ hug.’ I gave her like 13 hugs and we were so happy.  The end.”

dkeaggy@post-dispatch.com

314-340-8343

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