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In 1997 Maria Yopp-Mathias whacked a man named Luther Clark in the head with a wooden stick. Clark, she claimed, had stolen from her. She later was convicted in Miami-Dade Circuit Court of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon and was sentenced to four years in prison.
Authorities sent Yopp-Mathias to a state penitentiary in Quincy, Florida, about 500 miles from Miami, near the Alabama border. Her two sons, six-year-old Xavieand and three-year-old Jamal, moved in with Yopp-Mathias's mother, Gail Whitfield, in Liberty City. Soon the kids began referring to their new guardian as Mama.
For two and a half years Yopp-Mathias, who is 35 years old, didn't see her boys. Whitfield didn't own a car and other family members couldn't get time off from work to make the long journey to Quincy.
Last year the state moved Yopp-Mathias to a prison near Ocala. Although she was a little closer to home, she remained inaccessible to her family. Then she learned of a new state-funded program called Family Ties, which is designed to strengthen the bonds between inmate moms and their kids by using the Internet. Recently Yopp-Mathias came face to face with her sons for the first time in more than two years.
Yopp-Mathias's family traveled to the Alliance Cinema on Lincoln Road, where the project is based. Their hourlong cyber family reunion had it all: love, laughs, and more. Xavieand and Jamal stood before a tiny camera that transmitted real-time, digital video images to their mother, whose face the entire family watched on a computer monitor.
"Oh my God, Xavieand is so big," a teary-eyed Yopp-Mathias exclaims. "Jamal tall, too. But oh my goodness, I can't get over Xavieand."
The kids just stared at their mom, who wore a white T-shirt and applied frosty pink lipstick for the occasion. Her hair was neatly groomed. "I tried to look nice for you all," she said sweetly. Family members wanted to see the rest of her, starting with her feet. Yopp-Mathias put the black construction boots she was wearing up to the camera.
"What size shoe you wearing?" asked her sister, 28-year-old Shawntel Kelly.
"Nine," Yopp-Mathias replied. "But it's a men's nine."
"Oh okay. Well forgive me for that one," Kelly said.
"Xavieand's got some feets like his mama," Whitfield added. "He's got some boats."
Everyone began laughing. Then Yopp-Mathias stood up. "Child, are you sure you ain't pregnant?" Whitfield asked. "Let me see your butt." Yopp-Mathias turns around and the family laughed some more.
Then Yopp-Mathias addressed her sister: "How you doin'? How you really doin'?"
"I'm doin' fine," Kelly responded. "I'll be doing better once I start working full-time."
There also was some talk about prison life, but mostly about the kids. "Xavieand can't control his temper in school," Kelly said. "That's why you're at where you're at. 'Cause you couldn't control your temper that night. Hint, hint."
Before saying goodbye Yopp-Mathias's mother lectured the inmate. "Keep your nose clean, your feet dry, and hurry up and walk on out of there," Whitfield advised. "I need a vacation from your kids."
Not only was it the siblings' first meeting in years with their mom, it also was the only time they had ever been to South Beach. Similarly revelatory scenes have occurred for many of the 35 families who have so far participated in Family Ties, which began work in February, says Joanne Butcher, director of the Alliance, who last October offered use of the nonprofit theater's space to program administrators. "For many of these kids it's like a whole new world has opened up," Butcher comments. "In terms of media education, the project is very significant, because disadvantaged children at a very young age are introduced to computers. And it brings families out to Lincoln Road and Miami Beach who might not otherwise visit."
Butcher heard about Family Ties in 1998. Kathy Ott, a friend who had been working on the project with Ann Holt, a consultant for family programs with the Florida Department of Corrections, told her about the idea. "The Alliance is a media-arts center," Butcher says. "We do media education, so I thought, Oh how wonderful. It seemed like a natural thing to pursue." About $735,000 per year in federal, state, and local funding supports the program, which is the first of its kind in Florida.
Holt says she dreamed up the idea while studying the female state prison population. About 75 percent of inmates have children under age eighteen, and only 22 percent of those kids are raised by their fathers, she reports. The rest reside with grandmothers, cousins, foster parents, or others.
Inmates miss their families more than anything else. And conversations mostly involve children. "The biggest challenge for them is staying in touch," Holt says. Although about 80 percent of the state prison population comes from Central and South Florida, most facilities are located in the north, at least a five-hour drive from Miami.
The other part of the problem is money. "More than half of these women are indigent," Holt explains. "That means they can't even purchase a stamp to mail a letter with. Collect phone calls from inmates cost ten dollars. Even if they have phones, some families simply can't afford to pay that amount." Many of the women weren't used to writing letters.
To make the program work, Butcher installed two computers, two modems, two cameras, and two phones at the Alliance. Each setup cost $2500. Some brown plywood desks and office chairs also are part of the setup. There's very little light and a row of dozens of plush teddy bears for the young kids to play with. "My goal is to bring in other support from the entertainment industry," Butcher says. "But for now we're doing it in a very low-tech way."
Martisha Walker, a 23-year-old inmate at a prison in Hernando County, was convicted for stealing large amounts of cash in 1998. She has an eighteen-month-old daughter named Markiyah, who is currently being raised by Walker's mother, Carolyn Scott. Markiyah's father was shot dead at a gas station before the child was born.
Walker hadn't seen her daughter for more than a year when they first began meeting over the Internet. During a recent session, Markiyah blew kisses at the screen and her mom replied, "I love you" and read her a book. Toward the end of the encounter Markiyah fell asleep on her grandmother's lap. "That means it's time for it to end," Scott says. Then she adds: "Now Markiyah knows who her real mama is."
Ramona Tavia, age 28, was convicted of first-degree murder in 1994 after she encouraged her husband, Modesto Silva, to kill a man in a dispute over a gold chain. She's serving a life sentence. Her three children are victims as well. The sessions at the Alliance temporarily relieve their suffering, says her mother, Carmen Tavia. But after a recent meeting, her oldest child, nine-year-old Maria Regla de Alma, broke down. "They are very sad," the children's grandmother say. "They aren't the same children."