Over the glassed-in check-in counter

by francine Hardaway on June 21, 2002

Over the glassed-in check-in counter was a lighted moving sign, flashing the words “computer displays,” followed by a date in 1996 and a random time. The sign, which was probably purchased as a way to tell visitors the rules of the establishment, had never even been programmed. The change machine was out of change, and the pop machine was out of pop. Who cared?

The lobby was a metaphor for the lost, ignored segment of society inhabiting this building: the Maricopa County Towers Jail. Very seldom do I admit that I’d like to blow up the government and start all over again. But for me, the part ineptly designated as the “criminal justice” or “corrections” system is a huge fundamental failure. There is no justice for most criminals, and nothing is ever corrected.

When was the last time you visited someone in jail? For me, it was never. Most of my friends and family don’t make a habit of going to jail, and I’m not a criminal attorney or a social worker.

But my former foster son is in prison for two years. For breaking and entering. But really for crack addiction. and more really, for untreated mental health problems.

He was making a brief appearance at the Maricopa County Jail to be sentenced for yet another offense before being transferred back to prison for two years, and his sister and I decided to visit him last weekend.

LJ lived with us for seven years, from the time he was ten and was removed from his crack-addicted mother’s house to the time he ran away from the group home I sent him to after discovering he was doing drugs in my house. During that time, the village that is my friend/family network helped me try to raise him. We tutored him, diagnosed him, counseled him, medicated him, sheltered him, and loved him. We gave him “every advantage.”

But we didn’t get him early enough, and he was streetwise enough to con us into thinking he was becoming a nice middle class kid when actually he was still hanging around his old neighborhood.

Eventually, he got caught trying to support his drug habit and got sent to jail. After repeated non-compliance with the terms of his probation, he was sent to prison. Heartbroken, I put him out of my mind until he landed back in the jail and started calling us collect to speak to us.

So here we were, Amanda the newly-enrolled college student (his younger sister) and I, on a Sunday afternoon, stripping off our rings and earrings and anything else that could set off the metal detector, cooling our heels until the big iron door groaned open and we were allowed in.

We hadn’t seen Jerry in two years, and we both burst into tears when he sat down opposite us in the visiting area(no hugging, no kissing, no putting hands under the table). He seemed cheerful enough, but he was wearing stripes, just like in a movie. He told us that there were no classes in the jail, and no jobs, because jail was supposed to be temporary.

He had been away from prison for two months for this new trial and sentencing, which had interrupted his progress toward the GED. And now that he was being “page twoed” (brought back from prison to stand trial for more offenses), he would probably not be allowed to go back to “his yard” when he got back to the prison.

The new yard would be a medium security, rather than a minimum security, yard, and he would not be allowed to go to school or work for six months. I saw his life slipping by, waiting for various trials and sentencings to occur, serving the time until he could continue his education.

Worse, when he moved from jail to prison, the mental health benefits he previously “enjoyed” (he had gotten evaluated although not treated) were no longer in force.

I’m usually a pretty resourceful person, but between the bars and the barbed wire, the stripes and the searches, I was stymied. Lamely, I offered to send him a personally selected “great books” program so he could at least further his education by reading. Amanda couldn’t even speak.

When we left, we were both drained and bummed. Almost a year in jail and prison had already passed for Jerry, and two more were to come. What would happen to him when he got out? Who would employ him? What skills would he have? How would he live? Already he was referring to prison as “my yard;” he was comfortable there, with his three hots and a cot.

As if to underline the difference, we raced off to where we were comfortable: Houston’s.



Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: