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15-Year-Old Gets to Be a Daughter for a While

Her mom's in prison for life, so a program that arranges Mother's Day visits offers a rare treat.

May 14, 2006|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

Miya Chatman leans against the kitchen counter on Thursday evening, as her grandmother brews a pot of tea. The 15-year-old is trying to decide what to wear when she visits her mother in prison.

"Why don't you wear your white jacket?" asks her grandmother, Karen Hawkins, 59. "It's so pretty."

"No, Granny," Miya groans. "I wore that last time."

Miya's eyes sweep across her grandmother's Westchester apartment, where she lives with her older brother. Decorated with cow wallpaper, handmade quilts and a fern, the place seems to represent everything Miya is rebelling against.

The next day will be important. Along with 600 other children from across California, Miya will participate in the "Get on the Bus" program, started by ministers in 1999 to reunite children and families with their incarcerated moms for Mother's Day.

In the kitchen, her grandmother looks at Miya's earrings: two thick gold hearts, big as bracelets. She disapproves of them, even though they're Miya's favorite pair. Hawkins reminds her granddaughter that the prison has strict rules about jewelry.

"You can't wear your earrings," she says.

Miya replies: "I know."

Even though her mom has been locked up in a prison 300 miles away for the last 12 years, Miya believes she understands her more than her grandmother ever will.

Hawkins has taken Miya to see her mother off and on since she was 3. Her mom is serving a life sentence for kidnapping, robbery and weapons possession. Miya's earliest memory of her, when she was about 3 or 4, is from inside prison. Visiting hours had ended. Guards warned families to hold the children so they wouldn't chase their mothers. Miya didn't understand.

"Can my mommy go with me?" Miya asked.

"No," her grandmother replied.

Miya reached for her mother's hand. She screamed as her grandmother pulled her tiny fingers away.

Miya threw up all the way home.

This time will be different. When it comes to prison visits these days, Miya is an old hand. Her grandmother won't be there. Miya will have her mom's full attention.


A List of Rules

From the bus, Miya can see the sun rising. Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla is 4 1/2 hours away. Miya can't eat or sleep. She flips through Seventeen magazine but can't concentrate. She smooths the flowing pink skirt and matching sparkly top her grandma bought her for Easter. She has matching high heels, but she traded those for sneakers today because of prison rules.

Last week, All Saints' Beverly Hills, the Episcopal church that is sponsoring Miya's bus, sent a list of prison visiting rules. Don't wear red or blue, known gang colors. No jeans, zippers, cellphones, underwire bras or jewelry.

Miya followed the rules, except for one: She is wearing her favorite earrings.

From her window seat, she talks about how much she hates school. She has been kicked out of three schools for fighting. Now, she attends Orville Wright Middle School in L.A.'s Westchester community. Miya says she plans to earn an equivalency diploma by age 16 and get a job. She talks about other schools where kids do drugs in classrooms. Miya's biggest problem is staying out too late.

"I always tell my granny, 'I ain't even half as bad as you think I am.' "

Her grandmother is white. Miya's mother is white and her father is black. Miya says her mom grew up "in da hood" and, therefore, "everything I'm going through, she's been through." Her dad lives in Detroit and is not involved in her life.

Miya borrows a boy's MP3 player. Nodding her head, she takes out a pen and a notebook and begins to write rap lyrics:

\o7spitting on wax from day to day

counting my stacks and getting paid

yeah, we sooowoooping all the time

the ... in my hood say I'm a dime.

\f7Just after 10 a.m., Miya takes off her sunglasses, revealing curly eyelashes. She looks out the window and sees rows of avocado trees and a sign that reads: "Valley State Prison." Miya pulls a brush out of her Tinkerbell bag and runs it through her hair.


'You Know Better'

"Does anybody have anything bigger than one-dollar bills or quarters? Because you cannot take them in," a prison guard shouts to a line of families and volunteers wearing bright-blue "Get on the Bus" T-shirts, which Miya refused to wear.

She is holding a plastic bag with $20 in $1 bills, her birth certificate and a Mother's Day card. Miya remembers one time, when she was little, she threw a fit when the guards wouldn't let her bring in her lollipop.

A volunteer tells Miya to take off her earrings and put them in a bag. They will hold them until visiting hours are over. Miya hesitates. "Can I just ask the guards and see?" she pleads.

"Fine," the woman says.

After 45 minutes in line, Miya places her shoes and jewelry in a tray and passes through a metal detector. She puts her earrings back on. A guard recognizes her and says, "Oh, you know better." He smiles and logs the earrings onto a sheet as "personal possessions." He lets her go through with them.

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