By TOM GODFREY
Hundreds of Black men serving time in Ontario prisons are now able to see their children and spouses thanks to a grassroots community bus service that helps keep families together.
Every Saturday and Sunday, a 24-seat bus leaves Toronto for federal institutions in the Kingston-area with about seven children and 15 women aboard, who cannot wait to see their loved ones who are serving time behind bars.
Most of the inmates visited are Black, serving lengthy sentences and would not be able to see their families who do not have vehicles or can afford to travel by bus toKingston.
The families say the visits keep them together and thank F.E.A.T. For Children of Incarcerated Parents, that was founded in 2011 by Jessica Reid, and her dad, Derek. F.E.A.T. is an acronym for Fostering, Empowering, Advocating Together.
The non-profit group has helped more than 300 children visit their fathers in both provincial and federal institutions.
“Nearly 80 per cent of our families are Black or visible minorities,” Jessica told Share. “The visits keep fragile relations alive and offer inmates something to strive for on release.”
Jessica, on this day, was travelling along Hwy. 401 with more children and their moms, to visit dads in Bath Institution, a federal penitentiary about 20 kilometres west of Kingston.
“These visits help the inmates cope in jail and they adapt better,” she said. “There is nothing like seeing the look on the faces of the children after they visit their fathers.”
The program is welcomed by Correctional Services Canada officials since it helps keep families united.
An Ombudsman report last year revealed more than 75 per cent of inmates in provincial and federal institutions are Blacks or visible minorities.
“It is the children of inmates who are facing economic hardship, social stigma, isolation and feelings of abandonment,” she said. “These children are often faced with a myriad of challenges including family instability.”
The bus picks up families at various locations in the GTA before the trip toKingstonand other areas.
“The fathers and the families really look forward to these visits,” said Derek. “These visits keep them going and they look forward to being released.”
He said F.E.A.T. is the only group in Canada to provide such a bus service.
Toronto mom Chrisyana, who was born in Jamaica, said she takes the bus every two weeks with her two children to visit husband, Bernard, who is completing a five-year term at Beaver Creek Institution.
“I don’t drive and this is the only way we can get to visit him,” said Chrisyana. “The visits are good for the kids and it helps him to cope better in there.”
She said her eight-year-old daughter becomes excited on days when she visits her father.
“He will be out later this year and we can’t wait,” said Chrisyana. “We wouldn’t be able to visit him if it wasn’t for this program.”
Another woman, Debbie, said she is traumatized for not being able to visit her father while he was serving a 10-year prison term.
“I never saw my father during my most important years,” said Debbie. “I still feel the pain today.”
The service is offered free to youth under age 18. Those above 18 are charged up to $35 to help cover the gas.
F.E.A.T. also offers free peer mentorship and after-school programming twice weekly in the Jane and Finch community. There is also a summer peer group serving youth ages 8-12 who have a family member in prison.
The Etobicoke-based group is launching a fundraising walk to raise money for a new bus. From June 7 to 15, Jessica will walk 260 kilometres fromTorontoto Collins Bay Penitentiary, inKingston.
For information and donations log on to featforchildren.org