It’s a cold afternoon, and Houston’s Harris County Jail is bustling with activity. Family members are lining up in the lobby, handing over IDs in exchange for visitor badges and directions outlining where to proceed in order to meet with loved ones. This is one of the four visitation days per week and, for many, the process won’t be easy.
Parking can be inconvenient and expensive. The jail’s interiors, in drab grays and greens, are far from welcoming. Visitors are required to pass through metal detectors. And, even sheriff’s department leaders will acknowledge the jail staff could be a bit more cordial.
Then, there’s the waiting. Visitation itself is capped at 20 minutes, but the whole process can take an hour or two. The ordeal often leaves family members frustrated and feeling like they’re the ones being punished.
The toll is especially great on children.
“If I put myself in their shoes—a child’s shoes—I’d be scared,” said Maj. Mike Lee, who leads mental health and diversion efforts at the jail. “It’s a chaotic process they’re observing. The buildings are intimidating. There’s nothing friendly about it.”
Today, leaders at the Harris County Sheriff’s Office—which oversees the jail and the thousands of inmates being held there at any time—are hoping to change that, paying particular attention to the needs of children with incarcerated parents. The jail spent most of last year working with researchers from Texas Children’s Hospital, Baylor College of Medicine and The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston to identify ways to better serve kids who have parents in the jail. The Texas Medical Center Health Policy Institute provided a grant to support that work.
The results were so informative, the jail just won a grant from the U.S. Justice Department’s National Institute of Corrections, which is working with jail leaders to implement reforms.
Parental incarceration can have a negative impact on a child’s life that lasts well into adulthood, sometimes leading to neurodevelopmental and cognitive challenges, health experts say. Those kids—seen as the “forgotten” victims of crime— have huge needs that, until now, didn’t garner much attention from the jail. Under the leadership of Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who took office in 2017, that’s changing.
About 92,000 children in Harris County have a parent who comes through the jail in any given year. As part of the research, the jail started asking the 300 to 400 inmates who are booked daily about the number and ages of children they have. In Harris County’s jail, the nation’s third largest, half of all inmates have a child under the age of 18.
As Gonzalez sees it, improving the experience of those children is a key way the jail can help break the cycle of crime.
“This jail wasn’t designed and built with the needs of children in mind, but we’re determined to do better because our community’s children deserve it,” Gonzalez said at an event earlier this year.
In the coming months, the jail plans to update its website with details about the logistics of visitation— hopefully making the process less confusing. Additional plans include stocking lobbies and visitation areas with children’s books and playing children’s programming on television monitors. Visitation areas could get a makeover. The sheriff’s department may even reconsider its processes for arresting suspects when a child is present.
But most significantly, the jail is investigating how and if it can implement “contact visitation,” or face-to-face meetings between inmates and their loved ones. Today, virtually all in-person visitation is “non-contact,” which means inmates and visitors are separated by thick glass and communicate via phone. For jails, non-contact visits are safer and easier, since they reduce the risks of physical conflicts and the transfer of contraband.
The absence of touch takes a tremendous toll on inmates and their loved ones, especially their kids, researchers say. Families named contact visitation as the single greatest way the jail can support them.
“Kids who’ve grown up in this situation tell us, ‘It would make a huge difference if I could just hug my mom or dad,’” said Christopher Greeley, M.D., vice chair of community health at Baylor’s pediatrics department and chief of public health pediatrics at Texas Children’s.
Non-contact visits dehumanize parents, he said, which can have negative, long-term effects on families. It’s important to remember that those non-contact visits don’t just punish inmates; they punish vulnerable children, too, Greeley added.
“I don’t want [my son] to see me in jail, not through the glass,” one inmate told the researchers. “I’m okay with this orange jumpsuit, but seeing me and not being able to touch me … it might crush him.”
Families deserve better treatment
Another priority of the sheriff’s office will be improving the training of the frontline staff who coordinate visitation, according to Lee. Several families told researchers they won’t come to visitation because they feel like the jail staff treats them like inmates.
“We acknowledge we could benefit from some customer service training,” Lee said. “Your job isn’t to be the judge and the jury. It’s to be the [corrections] officer, to be impartial, to treat people with respect.”
In the past, visitors might wait in line for nearly an hour before learning they were at the wrong location, Lee said. Today, the jail lobbies are staffed with volunteers carrying iPads loaded with inmate information. They can quickly tell visiting families which of several jail buildings houses their loved ones, and whether those inmates have had visitation rights suspended.
But the single greatest need facing these families is food, said Nancy Correa, senior community initiatives coordinator for public health and primary care at Texas Children’s Hospital. Financial hurdles can arise quickly when a breadwinner is placed behind bars and other family members suddenly become responsible for a child they weren’t planning to support.
There’s also a serious emotional toll on families, said Melinda Garcia, coordinator for Angel Tree, a support group for children of incarcerated parents and their caretakers that meets monthly at Second Baytown Church.
Children may feel anxiety, shame, confusion, depression or anger when a parent is in jail or prison. Often, schools can’t provide help because the family doesn’t inform school leaders of the situation. And some families don’t even tell children when a parent is jailed. Instead, they provide creative excuses, such as ‘Mom is on a business trip’ or ‘Dad is training to be a superhero.’ “Part of the issue is the caregivers don’t know the duration they’ll be in jail,” Correa said.
Given those needs, the jail hopes to provide information to caretakers on how to talk to kids about incarceration and to connect them with agencies and nonprofits that can provide financial, emotional or mental health support.
Jail officials know that some critics may scoff at their attempts to embrace a softer side, arguing that jail is supposed to be unpleasant. But Lee is adamant that family members shouldn’t suffer from poor treatment. After all, those families haven’t been accused of crimes, and most of the people in jail haven’t been convicted. Jail leaders also believe addressing the trauma facing these kids is just the right thing to do.
“Regardless of what the adults in their lives may have been accused of,” Gonzalez said, “we want to make sure [these children] have an opportunity.”
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