- Associated Press - Monday, July 4, 2016

YPSILANTI, Mich. (AP) - On a recent Saturday morning, Tara Vallejo goes over her four children’s chores, checks their homework and talks about their plans for the summer. She asks if they are behaving themselves.

It’s a typical mom-and-kids moment, with a big difference: She is doing her mothering behind prison walls, The Detroit News (http://detne.ws/297u4nQ ) reported.

“It’s very difficult,” said Vallejo, surrounded by her three daughters and her son at Huron Valley Women’s Prison in Ypsilanti. “I’m involved (in their lives). It doesn’t feel like it. I make calls. I send letters.”

Once a year, moms at Huron Valley get to take part in the “One Day With God” event that allows them unfettered time with their children for a daylong program of fun and games. About 85 moms, 100 children and 120 volunteers take part.

Just like on the popular Netflix series “Orange is the New Black,” the women at the Ypsilanti prison who are mothers worry about their children. About 70 percent of female state prison inmates have kids, according to the Michigan Department of Corrections. The program also is available to dads at other state prisons.

Vallejo of Lansing has spent 21/2 years in prison. She has six to eight months to go on a conviction of conspiracy to commit armed robbery. Her children range in age from 6-13.

“I know it sucks,” Vallejo said. “But we will get through it.”

For the children - such as 9-year-old Antonio Ybarra of Adrian - the day is a chance to spend extended time with his mom.

“We’re allowed to dance and stuff,” he said of his mom, Jennifer. “I get to hug her.”

There’s lots of hugging at the event. Mothers and children are allowed to embrace only twice during normal visiting hours: once when the children arrive and again when they leave. At the “One Day” event, there are no restrictions - so the physical contact is plentiful and joyful.

“I feel happy,” Antonio said. “It’s fun seeing Mom.”

The boy’s 40-year-old mom is into her sixth month of a three-year prison sentence for selling drugs.

“This is phenomenal,” Jennifer Ybarra said. “This is the best experience I’ve had since coming to prison.”

Ybarra said it’s painful to know she’s missing out on a large part of her children’s lives.

She says she doesn’t like the children to visit her in the normal prison visiting room.

“I don’t want them to (think about that their) mom’s in prison,” Ybarra said. “It breaks my heart.”

Like other mothers who are locked up, Ybarra works with relatives, in her case the children’s grandmother, to provide a supportive network for them.

Michigan is among the states with the highest number of children who have a parent behind bars. Some 228,000 children - 1 in 10 - have had a parent incarcerated, according to Kids Count in its report “A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration of Kids, Families and Communities.” California was first with 503,000 in 2011-12, the latest figures available, followed by Texas, Florida and Ohio.

Michigan is tied for third with five other states - Ohio, Tennessee, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Alaska - at 10 percent of its children affected by incarcerated parents. Kentucky was first at 13 percent, followed by Indiana at 11 percent.

Deborah Springer’s two sons, 6 and 14, blend in with other children at the prison on the special visitation day.

“I feel blessed to spend the entire day with my children,” said Springer, who is serving time for home invasion and malicious destruction of property. “It’s truly a blessing.”

Like other moms, Springer says the regular visitors routine is hard on her and the children.

“We have to be separated,” the 35-year-old from Waterford said. “It’s hard to bond and to just hug.”

Springer ended up behind bars after she was caught scrapping vacant houses in Macomb County with her boyfriend to pay for their drug habit.

Her mom is helping to raise her boys while Springer is in prison. Some of the women give relatives, usually their own parents, legal custody over their kids when they are doing their time.

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Alicia Guevara Warren, project director for Kids Count and an analyst for Michigan League for Public Policy, said programs bringing incarcerated parents and their children together are vital.

“To be able to maintain their relationships and bond, especially when you’re talking about younger children, is important,” she said.

There are many hurdles for families, she noted. Older children may resist visiting because of the stigma of having a parent in prison, while some families can’t afford travel costs or phone calls.

The children are just as excited as the moms, program organizers say.

“They don’t see a crime. They don’t see a prison,” said Scottie Barnes, the founder of Forgiven Ministries, which sponsors the One Day With God event. “They just see their mom.”

Barnes said her participation in the program is based on a personal story: she, too, had a father in prison as a young child.

“This is your day. It’s all about you,” Barnes told the mothers and children gathered in the gymnasium of the prison.

“You have no restrictions today.”

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Huron Valley’s warden, Anthony Stewart, praised Barnes and the volunteers. “It’s a phenomenal program,” he said.

Stewart told the volunteers “you don’t know the impact this has made on these ladies”

Stewart told The Detroit News the program, in its eighth year at Huron Valley, is a deterrent.

“We feel that it hopes to end that (prison) cycle of incarceration,” Stewart said. “We don’t want grandmothers, mothers and daughters coming to prison.”

Mary Smith, the director of prison re-entry programs at Huron Valley, said the program can be transformational for incarcerated women.

“It changes their state of mind,” she said. “After the program is over, these women are changed women.”

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Ruby Lechak, a 35-year-old resident of the Upper Peninsula town of Kincheloe, agreed.

“Sometimes it’s frustrating. We do the best we can,” said Lechak, a mom of four daughters who have come to see her for the daylong event. Lechak is serving time for home invasion as a result of her drug habit.

Lechak’s 10-year-old daughter, Cassandra, laments: “It’s harder when I want to tell her something (about what is going on in her life).”

Kenisha Faison recalls her 5-year-old son was in diapers when she was sent to prison four years ago. The 24-year-old Westland resident has 11 more years to serve for conspiring to commit murder.

Faison said the father of her child helps with her young son while she is in prison.

“He knows where I am … that I’m in prison,” Faison said of her son.

Shavonne Davis beams with the excitement that her daughter recently graduated from college. The 43-year-old has been behind bars for eight years. She raised two daughters, now 24 and 20, while incarcerated. She said her younger daughter felt “I chose prison over her.”

“This program was life-changing,” Davis said. “It gave me a chance to have an honest relationship with my daughters. I was able to hold my child.”

But Davis admits the restrictions can be daunting.

“It is very hard,” said Davis of Detroit, who’s serving time for home invasion and great bodily harm. “You only have 15 minutes on the phone. That is a great feat in itself.”

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Information from: The Detroit News, http://detnews.com/

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