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Local children growing up without parents

on August 19, 2010

Jaquan Smith, 12, likes the Los Angeles Lakers and afternoons filled with video games.

But his face has aged just a bit beyond his years. He wears a look of concerned solemnity more often than most.

Like thousands of Richmond children, Smith has lost his parents to crime and incarceration.

“I wish my mom could be with me every day,” Smith said while coolly thumbing a videogame controller at a community center in Parchester Village, where he lives with family friends. “But I know that’s not going to happen.”

Earlier this year, in May, Jaquan took a bus to San Leandro, where he linked up with three siblings who stay with family in San Francisco. They boarded another bus in the pre-dawn light, then trekked though more than 100 miles of Central  Valley haze to see their mom.

It was their Mother’s Day. They spent it in Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla.

At least 200,000 children in California – including Jaquan and his three sisters, 14-year-old Tajanae Jacobs and two 10-year-old twins – have a parent serving time in state prison, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). The children are scattered across the state, often living with relatives, friends or foster families.

California’s overall inmate population has reached 175,000 – larger than the population of Hayward. The number of female prisoners has nearly tripled, to 10,200, since 1987, according to CDCR, which estimates the number of children of incarcerated parents at 200,000; some experts believe the figure is higher.

Almost none of the state’s $8 billion prison budget is dedicated to the children of prisoners or helping them maintain contact with their parents. A 2005 study published in the Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice found that maintaining the relationship between an inmate and child significantly reduces recidivism. According to a 2009 CDCR estimate, 42 percent of California’s female inmates commit crimes within two years of their release.

Jaquan’s mother was sent to prison six years ago, convicted of robbery and drug possession in Richmond. Jaquan was 6-years-old at the time and his father was also in-and-out of jail. The boy bounced between relatives in Los Angeles and, most recently, a family friend in Richmond. He said he’s changed schools at least three times.

Jaquan hopes he can stay in Richmond until his mom’s release in December 2015.

During the two-hour bus trip in May, Jaquan chatted with other children and scrawled in coloring books. This was the fourth year he rode a Mother’s Day bus – funded by a nonprofit program – to the Valley State Prison for Women.

“The hardest part is having to go, having to say goodbye to your mom,” Jaquan said.

Upon arrival at the prison, a complex of drab structures jutting out from the central California plains, and Jaquan and dozens of other children filed down a line of seated corrections officers who checked IDs and birth certificates. They then walked through the metal detectors and passed through the buzz and clang of the mechanized gates buttressed with razor wire. Guard towers loomed overhead.

Jaquan and his three sisters were led to a large multipurpose room with dozens of other visitors where they waited for their mother.

A few hours earlier their mother, Saprina Fletcher, 38, had risen from her bed in the cell she shares with more than a half-dozen inmates. Fletcher’s eyelids were heavy; she hadn’t slept. “I stayed up all night thinking about this visit,” she said. “I was overwhelmed, wondering what I’m going to say to my kids.”

Now, Fletcher, still weary, emerged from a hallway.

“Mama! Mama!” the twins shrieked as they bolted towards Fletcher, joined by Tajanae and Jaquan, who initially held back.

“I couldn’t move for a second,” Jaquan recalled later, at the community center in Parchester. “I was so excited to see her.”

For the next four hours, Fletcher played games with her kids. The twins got their faces painted. Tajanae bought sugary and salty snacks for the briefly re-united family. Jaquan talked about his favorite subjects in school.

When the day was nearly done, Fletcher walked a few paces away from the outdoor table where they had been sitting. In her prison blues, she looked older than her 38 years. She stared at her children.

“I’m afraid,” she said, her normally commanding voice much softer. “My fear is that I will never bond with them.”

Fletcher paused. She looked down, then up again.

“My fear is being forgotten.”

Fletcher’s absence weighs heavy on her children’s lives, particularly for Jaquan, who finds himself alone, repeatedly uprooted and uncertain of the future.

Weeks after visiting his mom, Jaquan was hanging out at the community center in Parchester Village, and said he knows there will probably be more changes to his already uprooted life. “It’s hard,” he said. “You make friends, then you got to go and you might not see them again.”

When his mother is released in 5 years, Jaquan will be 17.

“Sometimes I dream about me and my mom,” Jaquan said. “We still be living together, we were never separated, and I don’t have to be living in all kinds of different houses and places.”

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