All the Same, But All Different

November 29th, 2017

There is apparently no universal standard for how jails operate, at least with regards to how they manage visits to inmates. Over the years, Karin and I have visited a family member in three different jails, and each facility has had its own peculiar way of doing things. Each jail has had its own quirky system.

This is not to say that there are no similarities between the various lock ups. They all suck. That is consistent. Visiting a prisoner is always a hassle. Even when the guards are relatively friendly, the environment is intimidating. The buildings are universally cold and austere; usually lots of concrete, locked doors, and tinted glass. The seats are apparently designed to be uncomfortable. A jail is by its very nature ugly and forbidding. A reasonable argument can be made that jails are unpleasant so as to deter people from committing crimes that put them in there. However, I am convinced that nobody wants to be there; not the prisoners, not the guards, not the visitors.

Karin and I first visited our loved one when she was in the Milwaukee County House of Correction. At that facility a friend or family member has to register for a visit 24 hours in advance. The visit can last up to 30 minutes. A visitor can come to the jail on any day of the week, except Tuesday. Visits at the Milwaukee County House of Correction are all done by video. The visitors never actually get to see the inmate. They view the inmate on a screen. That is about as impersonal as a visit could possibly be. I found it interesting that I was required to go through a metal detector at the House of Correction prior to entering a locked room in order to watch the inmate on a fucking TV. That must have been a Sheriff Clarke idea. The only advantage of video interactions for a family member is that a visitor can speak and view to the inmate online (for a price) from home.

The Walworth County Jail was a bit more humane. There you had to register for a visit 48 hour in advance, but a person could visit on most days, and stay for half an hour. The visits were face to face. True, the conversations were conducted by telephone, but the visitor could physically see the inmate. That makes a difference. You could almost touch the other person. Apparently, in the last year, Walworth County has also gone the video route. More technology, less humanity.

The Kenosha County Jail is kind of chaotic. You don’t make an appointment for a visit. For us, it’s first come, first serve on a Sunday afternoon from 1:00 to 3:00. It’s a free for all. A person comes up to the service window, fills out a form, shows an ID, and waits…and waits…and waits. The visits are only ten minutes long, so the turnover is quick. Ten minutes isn’t very long, but sometimes it feels like an eternity if I can’t think of anything to talk about. I find that I remember all the things that I wanted to say just as soon as I put the phone down and leave the little booth. In Kenosha an inmate gets to see each visitor only once a week, so you have to make those ten minutes count.

When I was in the Las Vegas jail back in April, the thing that bothered me the most was the fact that I couldn’t let my wife know what was happening to me. I wasn’t in the jail long enough to need a visit, but I could already feel the isolation and the powerlessness. There was a sense of being totally disconnected from the outside world. A visit makes a huge difference to a prisoner. For some reason, jails often do their best make visits difficult and/or impersonal. That is the opposite of what they should be doing. Inmates need to know that somebody gives a damn. A visit is the best way to do that.



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