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Charities’ legacy on prison hospitality

July 10, 2015
Peter Breen
Sam Anselmo

Your article of June 19 (“San Quentin prison families visit dads, granddads”) on the “Get on the Bus” visiting program of the children of the incarcerated reminds me of the humble beginnings of the prison visiting program now in place at California’s 33 prisons.

In the spring of 1971 Seamus Kilty, the Marin County director of Catholic Charities, happened to be making a visit to San Quentin as a member of the county grand jury. It was early morning on a very foggy and wet day, Kilty saw a large group of women and children lined up in the cold against the cyclone fence waiting to “process” for a visit with a dad, a son, a brother who was incarcerated. The scene really changed Kilty’s life for good. He sought permission from his boss at Catholic Charities to establish a “hospitality” program for visitors. The program would be a place to rest after a long journey, a place to have a cup of coffee, a place for children to be children before entering the prison, which was built in the 1800s. He formed a board of directors, and hired a nun, Sister Maureen Fenlon, as the program’s first director.

As in the case of all good things, a small house just outside the prison gates went on the “for sale” market. Kilty convinced Catholic Charities to buy the building. The building is still known to many visitors and Marin residents as “The Yellow House.” The purchase was the first of 33 visitor centers that were established over the next 44 years throughout the state. Since that time, several million visitors have taken advantage of the centers which were operated by Centerforce, the newly formed nonprofit, until the mid-2000s. The centers continue to this day in the spirit of Catholic Charities and Seamus Kilty, who passed away this spring. The “Get on the Bus” program is the next step in the effort to help families stay together in spite of tough times when father is at San Quentin.

The writer is a member of St. Anselm Parish, Ross. 

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