As county jail terms lengthen, Rep. Talbot Ross seeks visiting rights for families

Every week, Jan Collins and her husband make the 3.5 hour round-trip drive from their farm in Wilton, Maine to visit their adopted son at the Maine State Prison in Warren, where they spend up to two hours together. The trip takes up their entire day.

“It’s such a relief coming from visiting in jail to actually visiting in prison,” Collins said. “You are allowed a hug at the beginning and at the end. You can hold hands. You can play cards. You can play cribbage.”

Visits with their son these days are quite different from those when he was detained for 18 months at the York County Jail. For the second half of their son’s detention in York County, the jail was transitioning to a new policy. Some weeks, they were only allowed speak with him through a live video feed. It was somewhat like a Skype call, Collins explained, and it was monitored closely by the guards.

Jan Collins’ husband and their three adopted children.

Previously, the jail allowed one-hour, in-person visits during which they sat at a table with their hands in sight of the guards at all times, who were alert for potential exchanges of contraband.

Collins recalls feeling an immense distance between them and their son when he was put on suicide watch for the first time. It was an emotional distance the once-weekly video feed could not bridge.

“I sat in one room while he was in another room down the hall,” Collins said, recalling making the trip to Sanford just to see his face on a screen. “He was going through the death of his son.”

In 2012, their son was sentenced to a 20-year manslaughter sentence for the death of one his twin sons, whom he killed in a case of Shaken Baby Syndrome when the infant was two months old.

Their son, whom Collins requested Beacon keep anonymous, came into their life when he was eight years old. He and his two sisters had been removed from an abusive home, which was one of five different foster homes the siblings had lived in before Collins and and her husband took them in. He had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Over the years, Collins absorbed what she could about childhood psychology, learning how adverse childhood experiences including child abuse influence adult behavior. It seemed like their son was doing well.

“Anybody who knew him growing up would have said he’s a great kid. He was always the first one to volunteer to help out. I think people would have thought this kid is really resilient,” she said.

“Because he hasn’t been able to recall things from his childhood in terms of his abuse, he had not actually worked through those things. There was a lack of understanding of emotions, ability to identify feelings, or really understanding what is going on inside of you,” she said.

Last week, Collins stood at a podium at the State House and told lawmakers, “When my son was on suicide watch, I could not hold him or touch him.”

The fight to make contact visitation standard

State Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross has introduce legislation that would make in-person visitation a default policy in Maine’s jails. | Cara DeRose

The state legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee is considering several reforms this legislative session in response to the state’s growing county jail population.  

Unlike prisons, which hold those who have been convicted of crimes, county and city jails are intended primarily to hold individuals awaiting trial. However, national research has shown that county jails have become warehouses for those too poor to post bail or too sick for existing community resources to manage — a disproportionate number of them people of color.

These factors are driving growing mass incarceration in the country. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, local jails admit 20 times more people annually than prisons.

In Maine, the trend appears to be similar. Last week, several county sheriffs testified before the Criminal Justice Committee about how many of their local jails are operating at or above capacity, necessitating greater revenue sharing from the state to meet those needs. By statute, Maine’s county jails are not supposed to hold inmates for more than 9 months.

Reformers invested in rethinking and reforming the mass incarceration complex say that a first, important step is understanding that if county jails are going to be used like prisons, then the people being held in jails need to have the same rights as those being held in prison.

This includes conforming to the same visitation rights.

On Friday, Collins, who after her son’s conviction became involved with the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, testified in favor of a proposed law, LD 767, sponsored by state Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) that would make in-person visitation involving physical contact a default policy in Maine’s jails.

Jails currently each have their own policies around contact, non-contact, and video visits and there is no statewide policy that establishes contact visits as preferential.

“I know that we share the same goals of rehabilitation, reducing recidivism and responding to the crisis of substance-use disorder and mental health. To realize these goals, regular contact visitation with family and friends, which is the natural support system that individuals rely on, must be part of our agenda,” said Talbot Ross, introducing her legislation to the Criminal Justice Committee, which will consider and potentially send the bill to the full House and Senate for a vote.

Claire Berkowitz of the Maine Children’s Alliance said that 16,000 children in the state live or have lived with a parent who has been incarcerated. “As an adverse childhood experience, there is no question that the sudden separation from a parent upon arrest and imprisonment can be particularly traumatic for a kid.”

She added, “This bill is a simple way to reduce or mitigate the psychological damage of Maine children whose lives are impacted by parental incarceration.”

During the previous legislative session, a similar bill sponsored by Talbot Ross failed to move out of committee after a member of the Maine Sheriffs’ Association raised concerns about not being able to police the flow of contraband into his jail if contact visits were mandatory.

This time Talbot Ross worked closely with the group to address those concerns. The new legislation allows jail staff to suspend contact visits in certain individual cases, while still defaulting to contact visitation as a policy.

Talbot Ross now has the endorsement of the Maine Sheriffs’ Association, yet she is still opposed by the same member, York County Sheriff Bill King.

King, who was not the sheriff when Collins’ son served time in the York County Jail, told the committee Friday, “In York County, the default position is video visitation. The majority of incarcerated individuals grew up with Skype.”

He added, “I think we need to keep in mind that jails are only supposed to be short term holding facilities. Remember, a jail is only supposed to house people for nine months or less.”

Committee chair state Rep. Charlotte Warren (D-Hallowell) challenged that claim, telling King: “You and I both know, in lots of places, folks are given consecutive nine-month sentences.”

For Collins and her husband, their weekly two-hour contact visits with their son is a big part of how they attempt to fulfil the vow they made years ago — that they would be the last family their three adopted children would ever need. For other families now struggling with a loved one serving time in a county jail, Collins said, such a reform could make a significant difference.

“Going to visit is a hope. It’s maintaining faith on some level that things could get better, without ever knowing if they will,” she said. “It’s about loving someone enough to walk beside them, even when it’s almost too hard to pick up your feet.”

(Top photo: Jan Collins’ husband and their three adopted children.)

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