Visiting the jail

Our county jail is a fairly modern facility. Constructed of structured concrete with plenty of steel inside of the walls, it features an extensive system of cameras and doors with electronic locks managed by personnel in a control room equipped with a wall full of monitors. Each pod within the jail has a station from which a corrections officer can remotely lock and unlock individual cells. When I visit within the jail, I use an electronic key card to enter a secure area. From that point, I go through a sally port that consists of two steel doors that are opened electronically one at a time. I enter the space between the doors and the one behind is closed and locked before the one ahead is opened. Once on the secure side of the building, I can navigate using elevators and hallways. The hallways have a series of doors that are opened by the operators in the control room. It is pretty intimidating at first, but once one comes familiar with the process and layout of the building it isn’t difficult to get to the area where the prisoner you need to meet is being detained. It doesn’t hurt to b known by the people in the control room, who get a sense of where you want to go and unlock the doors as you walk along.

Most visitors to the jail are not allowed to go directly into the pods to visit their loved ones. A system of video monitors allow for electronic communications with inmates, not unlike Sykpe or other video conferencing methods. There is even a system for authorized visits that can take place from a home computer.

Our community has several different types of places where prisoners are held and each has a different protocol for visiting. In minimum security facilities face to face visits in a common room are available. At the county jail each pod has one or more conference rooms which are locked in which an attorney or chaplain can visit with an inmate.

The majority of the people in the county jail are incarcerated pending court actions. They have not yet been convicted of a crime, but are awaiting trial. Some of them will be in the facility for a short time. Once they have had an initial hearing before a judge bail will be set and if paid they will be free to leave the facility until their trial in the courtroom. There are reasons of public safety by which a judge may order a very high bail that the defendant cannot pay or, in some cases, no bail is allowed. Some inmates cannot afford bail that is easy for others to pay. The courts are busy and the process takes time. There are also prisoners in the facility who have been convicted of crimes and who have been ordered to serve their sentences in the county jail and those who have been convicted of a crime and are awaiting transfer to state or federal prison facilities.

Prisoners are segregated by gender and perceived threat of harm to themselves, others or corrections officers.

It is a big, complex and expensive system. And our state has a relatively high rate of incarceration of its citizens within our nation which incarcerates more of our citizens than many other nations.

Because of my role in the system as a chaplain and because of the organization of the building, I don’t feel fear as I move around the facility. I know many of the officers and know that there are many eyes looking out for me and my safety. I do, regularly, have to remind myself that the facility is not filled with bad people, but rather with good people who have made bad choices. A person who is addicted to methamphetamines can act very strangely when high on the drugs and during the early stages of withdrawal, but will be very normal after the passage of a few hours. A person who has committed a violent crime may have made dangerous decisions when under pressure, but seems very controlled in the setting of an incarceration facility.

I have also visited maximum security prisoners who are bound and shackled when I am led into their presence and whom I visit in front of a glass wall under the attentive eyes of a corrections officer. The system, however, is designed to provide for the safety of all of the people who are part of it and It is a very safe place for a pastor to visit and a very safe place for those who work there.

The parable of the sheep and goats, also known as Jesus’ teaching about the judgment of nations, in Matthew 25, lists specific actions by which we are judged such as feeing the hungry, carting for the sick, giving drink to the thirsty and the like. In that list of specific actions that we are commissioned to do and judged by whether or not the have done them is visiting prisoners. Although it is more common for me to be called to visit the sick than to visit those who are imprisoned, both are part of calling from God. Of course, that particular parable makes it easy to see my failures as well as my positive actions. Yesterday, for example, I visited one prisoner. There were several hundred others whom I did not visit. I both saw those in prison who I visited and those who I did not visit. It is easy to see myself on both sides of that parable of judgment.

We all are in need of God’s gift of Grace.

The system, however, treats me differently than those who have been arrested. I don’t wear the jail-issued clothing. The officers open the doors for me as I come and go. I spend a while inside the secure side of the building, but go home to my own bed at night. I have never experienced the feeling of being locked in a cell and completely out of control of my coming and going. My compassion is based, in part, upon my imagination of how it must feel to those who are incarcerated.

So I visit when I am able and I pray each day for those who are jailed. May we all learn to live together in peace and share the love of Christ.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!