Monday, December 9, 2013
By JAN COLLINS
WILTON - As a parent of an inmate in the correctional system, it is important to me that your newspaper has drawn attention to visitation rights of family members and inmates, and particularly to the importance of contact visits.
While I am grateful for inclusion in the news coverage ("Drugs imperil county jail contact visits in Maine," June 24), I am concerned that so much attention was paid to "contraband" (without any specific evidence from jail administrators) and not enough to the emotional impact of contact visits.
The first time a York County Jail corrections officer announced that contact visits would be terminated in the near future, I was seized with a sensation of panic. Literally, my chest tightened, my pulse raced and my throat constricted.
I have spent more than a year making the weekly visits while my son awaits trial. Through the hazards of bad roads in the winter and bad traffic and construction in the summer, I have made the 2½-hour drive on time because maintaining my relationship with my son is important to me.
I make the trip not only for my son's mental health; I do it for my mental health and well-being.
It was months before I could walk into the visitation room without my throat constricting and my eyes filling with tears.
I feared for my son's safety in jail. He was constantly threatened and harassed by other inmates, often with the full knowledge of correctional officers.
At one noncontact video visit, I witnessed a line of inmates passing in a corridor banging on the door of the room where my son spoke to me at a video terminal. A guard accompanied the inmates, who were threatening, taunting and pounding on the door.
This winter, my son was asked to jump up and grab something for one of the other inmates. While he was in the air, someone -- probably another inmate -- moved a mop under his feet. When he landed on the uneven surface, he broke his ankle. It was almost a week before he was allowed to see a doctor.
I need contact visits, because I need to look into my son's eyes to know if he is really OK. I need to hold his hand, even if for just a moment, to let him know that in this world there is still someone who loves him unconditionally. Not because he needs to hear it, but because I need to say it.
If you are a parent, perhaps you can imagine how it would feel for someone to say to you, "You will not be able to look on your daughter's face or touch her hair or hold her hand for a year and a half. You will be able to have two hours of videoconferences each week in which everything you say is recorded or reviewed by a supervisor."
If this is frightening to you, then you are beginning to understand.
In 1958, psychologist Harry Harlow reported on his experiments with baby rhesus monkeys. The experiments were unbelievably cruel and unethical by today's standards, but they set the tone for discussions of the importance of physical contact for healthy development.
The babies were given a choice of a wire mother with an attached baby bottle or a soft terrycloth mother with no food. The baby monkeys chose the soft terrycloth mother. Harlow concluded that "contact comfort is a variable of overwhelming importance in the development of affectional response."
He continued to test the monkeys in various situations that "revealed the long-term devastation caused by (contact) deprivation, leading to profound psychological and emotional distress and even death."
Sixty years later, we should not be asking whether or not contact visits are a necessity.
In my year of visiting my son, I have talked to many mothers -- teachers, nurses, businesswomen -- who find themselves in a position they never imagined. Their beautiful little boys, so warm and loving, kind, gentle and eager to do good, are in jail.
Some of them are mentally ill, some of them have lost their souls to drug addiction, some have been warped by the inhumanity of war, others have become mean for no known reason.
But they all have a mother who holds out hope that their love will be a lifeline. They come every week without fail, as do many fathers, sisters, brothers, lovers and children. We all need contact visits.
If our goal is for inmates to re-enter society as healthy, productive citizens, how can we deny them human contact?
Jan Collins is a resident of Wilton.