In 1971, when a group of citizens formed a pilot program in Northern California and M-2 began matching prisoners with visitors, there were 23,000 inmates in state prisons, according to M-2 statistics. Now, the California Department of Corrections (CDC) cites 158,000. Men and women from every age, race and class, there is one thing that unites them: alienation. Many in prison are afraid that once the gate is shut, they will be forgotten.
M-2 officials estimate that 30 percent of prisoners are not visited regularly. Elida Perez, coordinator of M-2 at Central California Women''s Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla, says, "It''s even higher for women, more than 40 percent. At least for men, their wives and family are willing to relocate, to make the effort to visit. Women don''t receive the same kind of support." At the men''s facility in Soledad, lines for visitation stretch out the door, with two-hour waits. At CCWF, it''s more like 20 minutes.
According to the CDC, women prisoners only account for seven percent of the total inmate population, but their numbers have risen dramatically in recent years. In the wake of "Three Strikes" and mandatory sentencing for a wider spectrum of crime, women are also facing tougher courts. "I know a girl who committed a non-violent, drug-related offense," says Perez. "Her first time in court, the judge gives her ''two strikes.'' First time. Many prisoners today are very afraid they''ll go in and won''t come out."
One result has been that "more [prisoners] want to change," says Perez. More are going through drug rehab, Alcoholics Anonymous. Many take advantage of classes and training offered through the prison. The effects of their crime are not lost on most prisoners. "They know what a mess they''ve made of themselves."
For those that are aware, who are looking to turn their lives around, there is M-2. The program is designed to awaken hope, to provide for a better future. "Some women don''t have a clue as to how or what they will do to improve their lives," says Perez. "Some are very clear. All I''m looking for is a spark of willingness."
M-2 sponsors who are matched with a same-gender inmate visit at least once a month. Between visits, they write. No gifts, money or favors are allowed, in order to keep the friendship free of entanglement and false hope.
"We have over 100 applications waiting (at CCWF). But we don''t have enough volunteers," says Perez.
Nonprofit M-2 is aided by state and corporate grant monies, operating in 20 of the 33 state prisons. But those funds aren''t covering the range of administrative, clerical and supply costs--all of which add up to about $650 total per match. Meanwhile, each prisoner is being held at the cost of $21,098 per year, according to the CDC.
Of a prospective M-2 sponsor, Perez asks: "Can you just be a friend? You need to be willing to accept your match just the way she is." That, says Perez, means being reliable, to counter the prisoner''s experience of uncertainty and mistrust.
"The word ''prison'' can be fearful to volunteers," says Perez. "You have that Hollywood image of a dark, dank place. But no sooner do you set foot in the visiting area and see little kids running around, inmates who look like ''the girl next-door,'' than you figure, ''Ah! So this is what it''s like!''"
Volunteers can contact coordinators like Perez with concerns, and can participate in M-2 social/support gatherings. There is also an orientation period and periodic tours of prison grounds, which give a better view into the prisoner''s daily life. --Mary Andrews
For information on M-2, including speakers for churches and community groups, contact Elida Perez at (209) 665-7198.