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Santa Clara Magazine

Great expectations

Squaring prison and pregnancy

Tawana Ward with infant Leilonni
Tawana Ward with infant Leilonni
Photo: Charles Barry
It is May 2007, and the Chowchilla Family Express is making one of its early runs from Northern California. In the rear of the bus sit Brenda Strickland Haynes and her son, Lonnell Oates. They are heading to Valley State Prison for Women to visit Oates’ girlfriend, Tawana Ward, pregnant with his child. For Haynes, it’s her first grandchild.

It’s also the first time that either have seen Ward in six months. “I’m hoping we can feel the baby kick,’’ Haynes says.

A few hours later, Haynes is standing in the visiting room, gently patting Ward’s protruding belly. “Look at that!” Haynes says. The due date is only a few weeks away.

“I wanted to see you so badly.’’

For her part, Ward says the visit will help her make it through her final stretch in prison; she is serving eight months on a drug offense.

The man behind the Family Express, Eric DeBode, watches the family, beaming: Reunions like this are why the program was created. He promises to visit the family after the baby is born.

But there is one problem: Ward’s sentence will keep her in prison beyond the date of the baby’s birth. So he sets about trying to convince prison authorities to release Ward early, or at least to allow her, once the baby is born, to fulfill the remainder of the sentence in a halfway house so she can be together with her baby.

Leilonni weighs nine pounds at birth. But the birth is difficult; the baby’s heart stops briefly. A few hours later, the newborn is transported from a hospital in Madera to an intensive care unit at a larger hospital. Ward holds her baby for a few hours. A day later, she is sent back to prison for the final seven weeks of her term.

“A baby shouldn’t be without her mother,’’ DeBode tells me. “We really tried to fight for them.’’

And then, in August, on a bright summer afternoon, DeBode flies to the Bay Area for the promised reunion. In Brenda Haynes’ living room, he cradles little Leilonni and gently touches her cheek.

“Oh, aren’t you precious?” he says. “She’s so beautiful. It’s been a few years since I had a little girl this size.’’

He hands the new parents a few gifts: a purple Family Express t-shirt and a stuffed puppy for the baby. For DeBode, the Family Express represents the culmination of decades of abiding dedication to social service. He and his wife adopted an infant girl five years ago; he spends the next hour sharing parenting tips.

“Eric is awesome,’’ says Haynes. “For him, it’s not just about the ride—it goes beyond that. He takes all of this so personally.’’—EF