James White knows the road to the women’s prison in Vandalia like the back of his hand.
Every few weeks, he herds his three kids onto a passenger bus in St. Louis and takes them to visit their mom, Michelle Hickman, who is serving a 15-year sentence at the prison.
They’ve made the trip once a month for the past seven years — but they don’t do it alone.
The St. Louis nonprofit Let’s Start has offered free transportation to the women’s prison in Vandalia for more than two decades, and in that time, a close-knit community has formed. For many of the riders, the bus is the only way they can visit their relatives in prison and an opportunity to connect with other families experiencing similar struggles.
St. Louis Public Radio met several of these families on a recent bus trip to the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center.
“It’s the people that keep me coming on these trips,” James White said, standing outside the cherry-red bus and greeting fellow riders. “This is a family.”
Everybody knows your name on these trips, he said, comparing it to the sitcom “Cheers.”
White sits at the front of the bus with his 14-year-old daughter, Tia, and 11-year old twins, James Jr. and Jamia. Tia White helps pass out free bagged lunches to the other riders before settling in next to her dad. She counts the days leading up to these visits, she said, and looks forward to them all week.
“I’ll have my outfit ready before it’s even time to go that weekend,” she said. “I’ll clean my shoes and get all pretty for my mama. She wants to see how we’ve grown up over that month.”
After a nearly two-hour bus ride, followed by security screening at the prison, the White family hustles into the visiting room. The large, open space looks like a high school cafeteria, with humming fluorescent lights and vending machines selling hamburgers and chicken wings.
After a round of hugs, Hickman and her family select a table in a sunny corner of the room. For three hours, they play checkers and card games together, while sharing updates about what’s happened in the past month.
“We try to make these three hours that we get the best three hours,” said Hickman, who has five more years to go in prison. “It’s super hard seeing them grow up like this.”
Hickman talks to her kids on the phone every day, but it’s not the same as physically being together. Though she’s had to watch them grow from toddlers to teenagers inside this visiting room, Hickman feels thankful that her kids want to have a relationship with her.
“A lot of moms in here don’t get that,” Hickman said. “I don’t lie to my kids; they know I did something wrong. But just knowing that the kids also look forward to coming to see me makes me feel like not such a bad mom.”
Tia White senses her mom’s pain — and she said she always tries to put on a good face during the visits, even when she’s feeling sad.
“I know that she’s hurting, so I want her to be happy when I go see her,” she said.
For John Bryant and his granddaughters Selena and LeeAndra, taking the bus to the Vandalia prison has become a monthly ritual.
His daughter, Tameca Bryant, is serving a 12-year sentence at the prison.
Because the Bryant family doesn’t have a car, the bus trips are the only way they’re able to visit her. These trips, John Bryant said, help his granddaughters maintain a relationship with their mom.
“It keeps them connected, so when she does get out, it’s not some stranger coming to the door,” he said.
The family plays Uno in the visiting room and sips sodas, while the girls tell their mom about school. LeeAndra Bryant, 12, is excited to share that she made honor roll this month and is now the manager of the basketball team.
It’s been “heart-wrenching” to be away from her kids for the past seven years, said Tameca Bryant — and seeing them, even for a few hours, means a lot to her.
“Nothing can affect my mood when I know I’m going to see my kids,” she said.
On the other side of the visiting room, 78-year-old Darline Combs scoots her chair closer to her granddaughter, Rakahla Combs.
Darline Combs doesn’t have a car, so for the past two years, she’s taken the Let’s Start bus to the prison every month to visit her granddaughter.
“I get to see her, I get to hug her, I get to kiss her,” she said. “It’s amazing.”
She circles the date on her calendar, counting down the days to the trip. During the visits, they often like to reminisce about family memories, but lately, they’ve started thinking more about what lies ahead.
Rakahla Combs is due to be released from prison next year. Both she and her grandma love to cook — and they’re looking forward to making meals together, like fried fish, greens, okra and corn.
These visits keep her going through tough times, she said, and motivate her to stay out of trouble.
“It gives you something to look forward to, even when you're really down in here,” Rakahla Combs said. “She wants me to do better, so I don’t have to come back.”
Toni Jordan, the coordinator of the Let’s Start bus program, understands the importance of these visits firsthand.
Jordan served about 30 months at the women’s prison in Vandalia. For the first year and a half, her family couldn’t afford to visit her.
Eventually her sister started renting a car so she could bring Jordan’s children to the prison.
“That three or four hours was the time of my life,” Jordan remembers. “Nothing, no event, can take the place of me having that moment to spend with my family. I look back, and I know that was my main reason for getting my life in order.”
Those visits made her feel like she still had a place in their lives — and she believes that’s important for every incarcerated woman.
“It’s so vital that these women have the support they need from the outside,” Jordan said. “That keeps the bond and that communication line open.”
Let’s Start covers the cost of each trip — about $1,000 — through grants, fundraisers and donations.
Currently, the organization only offers a free monthly trip to the women’s prison in Vandalia, but Jordan hopes it can expand to other prisons in the future.
“People really need this bus trip,” Jordan said. “Every visit, I believe, is important.”
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