by HARVEY YODER
Many of us in the Harrisonburg area frequently drive by our local jail on South Liberty Street without realizing there are some 350 of our neighbors packed together in that facility, some 20 percent of them simply awaiting trial. And if you happen to come by on a weekend visitation day, you will find numerous family members, parents, children, grandparents, siblings and others waiting to spend a half hour with a loved one behind bars.
Needless to say, being incarcerated can create high levels of stress for already fragile families, often resulting in traumatized and neglected children, broken relationships, financial crises, and increased costs of foster care and other social services. An important part of rehabilitating offenders is helping them maintain strong family and community ties.
Meet inmate John Doe, an all too typical young father who is behind in his child support payments and is waiting for his third court hearing. Like all too many others, he has made some bad choices that have resulted in his having a second DUI, losing his job as a truck driver and contributing to the breakup of his marriage. But he does love his two-year-old son and five-year-old daughter, and would like to be able to support them while still paying his other bills and keeping up with his rent. But he’s overwhelmed by all of his problems and has been getting further and further behind.
Unfortunately, while he is behind bars the interest and penalties on his child support payments continue to add up, making his financial problems seem ever more hopeless.
Some communities have come up with a few fresh approaches such as:
1) drug and alcohol courts with alternative sentencing and treatment options,
2) day reporting programs that have offenders continue to work while checking in every day and submitting to regular drug and alcohol tests,
3) in-home detention, with or without the use of ankle bracelet technology,
4) and having more pretrial cases released on bond while awaiting hearings.
Without such options, John Doe’s life is on hold. On the looked-forward-to visitation day, he is brought to a visitation booth in handcuffs and in orange prison garb to see his mother, dad and/or his estranged wife, who sometimes bring his children with them to see their daddy. During their 30 minutes together they are separated by a wall of concrete and steel and have to speak through a glass window, along with a row of other visitors.
Meanwhile someone among his family and friends must see to it they pay the jail $30 a month ($1 per day) in “rent” for him to be behind bars. Otherwise he will not be able to able to purchase highly overpriced personal items at the commissary (10 cents for a packet of ketchup, 17 cents a packet of mayo, and $4.39 for three ounces of ground coffee). Phone service is also expensive, limiting the number of collect calls his friends or family members may be able to accept.
Any changes at our local facility that could help offenders and their families financially—and enable them to stay in closer touch with each other and with a supportive community—could greatly help them mend their lives and heal their relationships.
Harvey Yoder is a family counselor and teaches parenting and marriage classes at the Family Life Resource Center. Questions relating to family concerns can be addressed to FLRC, 273 Newman Ave., Harrisonburg, VA 22801 or to Harvey@flrc.org. His blog can be followed at harvyoder.blogspot.com.