Research by the University of Minnesota is helping improve the experience for kids who visit a parent incarcerated in Washington County Jail in Stillwater. Plans are underway to use some of the same ideas in Dakota County, as well as Dane and Racine counties in Wisconsin, which were all included in the research study. Researchers found that children often felt anxious, scared, or stressed about visiting a parent in jail. The environment is intimidating, with lots of rules and regulations.
Plans include changing the appearance of the waiting area by installing murals of families, as well as age-appropriate signs. They are also finding volunteers to explain what to expect when the children enter the secure area of the jail.
Everyone agrees that family visits are beneficial to children and prisoners alike, but seeing a mom or dad through glass, dressed in strange clothing, can be difficult. One of the tools researchers developed to help prepare kids is a program produced by “Sesame Street” called “Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration”. It includes a video directed toward children between the ages of 3 and 8, as well as other resources.
Other changes at the jail include making announcements in person, as opposed to over the intercom from behind security glass, a redesigned website showing what to expect when going through the metal detector and entering the visiting booth, and making books available so children can read to prisoners or vice versa, over the phone in the booth.
Officials are also installing kiosks in the waiting areas to help with various needs. These include applying for library cards, getting immunizations and health insurance, finding help for filing taxes or getting food assistance, where to find help in cases of domestic violence, and resources for things like school supplies. All of these things are designed to help visitors have a more positive experience, with a supportive, family-friendly atmosphere, to reduce stress. Researchers hope the program will become a model for other jails.