Currently, many parents incarcerated in King County jails cannot hold their children when they visit. Instead, families can visit with each other through booths like these.
Currently, many parents incarcerated in King County jails cannot hold their children when they visit. Instead, families can visit with each other through booths like these. sakakawea7/getty

Each year, about 35,000 people are booked into jail in King County, which operates one of the largest detention systems in the Pacific Northwest. Between the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent and the King County Correctional Facility in downtown Seattle, an average of about 2,000 adults sit in jail each day, reports show. About 110,000 kids living in Washington State have had a parent in jail or prison at some point in their childhood, the Washington Defender Association reports (PDF).

But none of those kids are allowed to touch their parents during visits, despite a wellspring of research heralding the benefits of contact visits allowing incarcerated parents to hold their children and talk face-to-face. A group of formerly incarcerated parents, behavioral scientists, and criminal justice experts are now working with King County Council members to change that.

Kimberly Mays remembers how her relationship with her children suffered when she was in and out of jail until 2004. While she was jailed and awaiting court hearings, Mays’ mother would bring her young kids to see and talk to her through the plexiglass visitation window. In a phone interview with The Stranger, Mays remembers some visits being especially difficult.

“My oldest son, he was 3, he spent the whole visit trying to get the glass off,” she said. “[He spent] that entire visit almost trying to figure out how to get [through] that glass to me.”

“That bothered me a lot. I think, in that moment, he really needed for me—” Mays begins to cry. “I didn't really think about it until now. What my child really needed that day was to hold [him] and know that [he’s] safe.”

Currently, children and family members are able to make in-person contact with incarcerated relatives in jail visitation booths separated by glass, over the phone, or through a Skype-like “video visitation” service, which costs about $13 for 25 minutes. Only attorneys, doctors, and “other professionals appointed by the courts” can visit incarcerated individuals in-person, said Captain Troy Bacon of the King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention. Neither of the county jails have a space for contact visits at this time, he said.

Although parents are separated from the outside world while in jail, children are ultimately the ones who feel that burden most, a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows.

Across the United States, the organization’s research shows that “from 1980 to 2000, the number of kids with a father in prison or jail rose by 500 percent.”

These children feel the absence of that adult — whether it is several nights in jail or years in prison — in myriad ways, even if they weren’t sharing a home. They feel it when their refrigerator is bare because their family has lost a source of income or child support. They feel it when they have to move, sometimes repeatedly, because their families can no longer afford the rent or mortgage. And they feel it when they hear the whispers in school, at church or in their neighborhood about where their mother or father has gone. …

Many advocacy efforts also recognize the wildly disproportionate impact of the criminal justice system on people of color, especially African-American men, who are far more likely to be arrested and spend time behind bars. As a result, children of color are inevitably more likely to contend with having a parent in prison. Yet policy debates about incarceration rarely focus on the burden borne by children and families. Theirs are stories of things lost: connections, jobs, income, homes — and hope. And communities, in turn, suffer from losing so many parents, whose absence leaves the economic and social fabric of their neighborhoods in tatters.

When looking at the criminal justice system, kids are “these kind of invisible characters” who are “really not thought about at all,” said Former Washington State Representative Mary Helen Roberts.

“Small children in particular have the capacity to think that the worst thing possible could happen,” she said. “If mom has been put in jail and you don’t see her, there’s a certain amount of assumption that you’ll never see her again. That she’s gone, she’s lost.”

Implementing contact visits in King County’s jail system is a first step in helping families stay together—and reducing recidivism, said Mays, who now holds a Masters degree and serves as a support specialist for the Washington State Office of Public Defense.

“It’s best for children for their parents to be able to parent while incarcerated,” she said. “It gives [parents] a reason to keep hope and a desire to move forward.”

Roberts, who is working with Snohomish County officials to implement contact visits in their jails, agreed, adding that King County tax-payers’ dollars are best spent when investing in prevention efforts and supporting formerly incarcerated parents.

A report from the Washington Defenders Association states that regular contact visits “can help maintain healthy parent-child attachment and can make it less likely that incarcerated parents will become involved in crimes in the future” and can assist in reuniting the family when the parent is released.

Prisons, which are often operated by the state, as opposed to county-run jails, have responded to this research and some have started allowing “a variety of physical visits,” said D’Adre Cunningham, who works as an attorney for the Washington Defender Association’s Incarcerated Parents Project. The difference between serving time in prison and jail is so stark that some parents prefer going to prison just so they can have contact visits with their kids, she said.

Elizabeth Hendren, an attorney with the Northwest Justice Project who mostly works in state prisons, said she was “surprised” to see how limited family contact is for jailed parents. Although parents in prison may be serving time for more serious crimes, they have “better contact” with their children and families, she said.

Some parents may stay in jail for months, awaiting trial or sentencing. While that may not seem long, “from a child’s perspective, a week or two or a month is a very long time to not know where their parent is,” she said.

There's currently no timeline available for when county officials may vote to implement contact visits. King Council Council staffers are currently working on crafting legislation to study implementing contact visits within the county jail system.