View from the visiting room: State-sanctioned, petty cruelty against prison dads

Opinion, Family/Kids, NakedLaw, Relationships, Rights

I visited Los Angeles’ federal jail three times this month, to meet with an inmate seeking my representation. It’s been a few years since I’ve visited an American jail or prison, and I’d forgotten about the minor but infuriating nastiness visited not only upon the inmates, but even their law-abiding visitors.

Each time most of the staff made clear their seething hatred for all of us – mothers, girlfriends, clergy, lawyers — by seemingly making up and then changing rules midstream. For example, after securing my electronic devices in a waiting room locker, twice I was allowed to bring my purse into the visiting area. Good thing, as I need my reading glasses, pens and other items it contains. The third time? No. The guard angrily told me to get rid of my handbag, as if I’d brought in a grenade, requiring an extra half hour of going back through security to lock it up.

The route to get into the attorney-client meeting rooms could only have been designed to irritate visitors. To get to the restroom, for example, one must first wait in line for security, take off shoes, sweater, watch, jewelry. After using the restroom, one must again go back and wait in line and disrobe once again. What contraband could I have loaded up with in the bathroom? One-ply toilet paper? Why not put the bathrooms in the pre security waiting room? Many mothers with little kids wait there, only to be told rudely there is no restroom for them or their toddlers. At all.

On one visit I was told inmates have lunch daily at 10am and thus I’d need to wait an extra hour. On another visit, I was told I needed to wait an hour at 1pm, as that was lunchtime every day.

In any operation in which the entire staff scowls and is unfamiliar with words like “please” or “thank you,” the problem starts at the top.

My suspicion that whoever runs the place not only didn’t care about garden variety customer service but probably wanted to inflict random acts of meanness on everyone was confirmed once I finally battled my way in to the inmate visiting room.

Like everyone else, I sat in the waiting room and waited. And waited. I watched a beautiful young black woman with twin toddlers go through the bureaucratic nonsense without so much as rolling her eyes, and without either child crying or even whining. She waited too. And waited.

I watched another mama, Russian I think, bring in her little boy and when her inmate came, she did not embrace him — just handed over the kid and looked away while he cooed and spoke to the child. Guess they’re not an item, but she is kind enough to bring the boy in to visit his dad, who made the most of that short time with him.

When the twins’ dad was finally brought out, he whooped and kissed his babies so long I thought their cheeks would rub off.

I’m told that at this jail, inmates get 90 minutes per week social visits with anyone other than counsel. I waited longer than that to see my client. Two hours into my wait, to pass the time, I surveyed the little inspirational posters someone had put up in the room.

“Being there for your kids means more than just being home,” said one, with a photo of a man who seems to have gotten that message, playing with some kids.

“Give your children something they can really depend on … your time,” said another.

I snuck around and surveyed all the signs in all the waiting rooms, and each was a variation on this theme, exhorting parents to be present and spend time with Junior.

Telling incarcerated people to take more time with their children. Wow. What kind of sadistic procurement officer green-lighted this callousness?

Did someone sit in a back room and think, “In addition to making up and changing the rules constantly for the inmates, their loved ones and lawyers, in addition to lying to them and making them wait obscene amounts of time, let’s make them feel really awful about themselves. I’ve got it! How about signs reminding them that by virtue of being incarcerated they are horrible parents?”

U.S. society’s decision to be the land of mass incarceration, where we currently imprison more of our own people than any other nation on earth or in human history, means that we are forcibly separating more parents from their children than ever before.

More than half of federal prison inmates are in for drug crimes, mostly nonviolent offenses. The largest single category of federal drug offenses is marijuana crimes, mainly possession offenses.

Sixty-three percent of federal inmates are parents. The man I visited, for example, has a new daughter. Everything in the story he told me was pegged to his baby’s arrival: “three days after she was born … when she was just a month old …” All he wanted was to get the hell out of the detention center and get back to his infant.

Yes, if he did the crime, he’ll have to do the time, and most of us accept that. (Except why on earth are we still incarcerating Americans for marijuana possession? Anyone? Anyone?) And yes, inmates endure far worse abuses than mean-spirited visiting room posters. One in ten state inmates, for example, are sexually abused.

But someone had to purchase, approve and post those “spend time with your kids” posters. This had to come from management. With a smirk.

When their dad was told visiting time was up, the twins cried for the first time that afternoon, stretching their tiny hands into the empty air as he was led away.

If we really wanted to give children back their fathers, we’d end our sick cult of mass incarceration and focus on crime prevention, substance abuse centers, job training and all the programs that work well in other developed countries to keep their prison population at a tiny fraction of ours.

As it’s well-known that keeping inmates connected with their families is key to their reintegration after they’re released, we would train staff to treat their weary visitors with basic respect to keep them coming back. At a minimum, we wouldn’t allow petty cruelties to be standard operating procedure anywhere in our justice system.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Avvo.

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