The smell of sweat and Pine Sol greets the hundreds of people who come to the visiting room of the county jail each week to meet their incarcerated friends and relatives. It’s a linoleum-floored, fluorescent-lit bridge between the somber confines behind bars and the bright world of greater freedom beyond.
Some of the prisoners await trial or are completing plea agreements. Some are serving time for minor offences and will soon be released. Others are biding time before transfer to the state prison system.
The jail is near the county’s animal pound just off U.S. Highway 1, within the sprawling sheriff’s department headquarters; that complex of tired outbuildings and bunker-like offices reminiscent of a military base. The main visitor’s room is small, accommodating fewer than 100 people, and has all the charm of an aging school cafeteria, with hard, orange plastic chairs. There are information pamphlets available on the walls, almost all of them giving advice on where to go if you are homeless.
Visitors are instructed to arrive half an hour early, but a line often forms hours before the staff starts taking names for the visitor list. There are two general categories of visitors: the old hands and the rookies. It’s not hard to tell them apart. The veterans—most of the visitors look to be in this category—seem to breeze through the experience as though they were simply waiting to get their oil changed. But there is always drama.
An old Latino farmer sat with his back against the brick wall in line to sign in. He was angry and bitterly sad. His son had been arrested for burglary.
“I’m finished,” the farmer said as his eyes welled with tears. “You can’t understand this.” He would say nothing more.
Jenna, an attractive woman in her late teens, was in line to sign in to see her father. He was awaiting trial for dealing drugs and not for the first time, according to the daughter. In line behind her was an older woman who looked strikingly similar to Jenna. As visitors in the visiting line sometimes do, they began chatting, and soon discovered they were visiting the same person. Kelli, the older woman, turned out to be Jenna’s father’s new girlfriend. He had left Jenna and her mother to live with Kelli. It was the first time Jenna and Kelli had met. Strangely, Jenna seemed to take the situation in stride. The two women kept talking, mostly about the man they had come to see.
Kathy was in the waiting room by herself, sitting and reading. Her long brown hair hid most of her young face, but not enough to obscure her washed-out blue eyes. She was beautiful, young, fashionable—and definitely looked out
of place. Kathy said she had never
been to the waiting room before. She was there to visit her boyfriend, a much older man.
“My family would kill me if they knew I was here,” Kathy said with a sly grin. “They don’t approve of the relationship.” She related this in the way a small child discloses what they think is a clever secret.
Children are common in the waiting room. The younger kids play on the unforgiving plastic institutional chairs and seem to always make a game of their visit. Older children seem to realize where they are and almost always sit quietly, perhaps realizing that waiting to see someone in jail does not bode well for their future.
Two young boys were in the room, along with an older boy and a large woman with a tired, pretty face. The two boys played beneath two chairs, gradually making more noise as they grew bored. Finally, they started to yell and screech at each other.
“Quiet down you two,” shouted the large woman, as heads turned. One of the two little boys immediately responded with a loud fart, which infuriated her. “Do you want to see your dad?” she said. They quickly piped down. “They’re not mine,” she claimed.
After visitors see their friends and relatives, they leave through the dismal room in which they waited. They are different; you can see it in the way they walk. Visitors on the way in rarely walk quickly. Their gait is slow and they seem to bear heavy burdens on their shoulders. But as they depart the jail and the bright sunlight beyond makes them squint, they walk faster—and it seems as though some of the weight is gone.
(The names of all people referenced have been changed to protect their privacy).
Staff Writer Robert A. McDonald can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org