By Donna Coriaty
“My life changed forever on the night my ‘loved one’ was arrested.” For some this statement is underscored with a sigh of relief that their loved one is finally off the streets and beginning the long road to recovery. For most it is change accompanied by guilt, confusion, embarrassment and isolation.
For many this is the first time that a person close to them has been arrested. The TV crime drama has become reality and they are in the center of it. Contrary to popular belief all those arrested do not come from broken or dysfunctional homes. However, the stress of detention can certainly damage families and relationships. Previously supportive friends and neighbors turn away because they just don’t know what to say.
In March 2003, having experienced the incarceration of a loved one, a former employee of the Strafford County Jail, with the blessings of County Administration, established the Family Reception Center. The Center is supported financially through grants and donations and staffed by volunteers. In the years that I have volunteered at the Center I have seen many broken individuals receive the information and support they need to lessen the impact experienced through incarceration.
A couple of years after I began volunteering at the Family Reception Center I had the opportunity to visit the State Prison. Outside it was a bright spring day but that changed as I entered the prison waiting room. The overcrowded area was dark and dingy in stark contrast to the brightly decorated welcoming area at Strafford County. There were no racks of beneficial information, refreshments needed after a long drive or a friendly greeting. There no toys or books to keep the innocent children amused.
As I waited to go through security with the other visitors I noticed a petite woman wearing jeans and a hoodie enter the building. She looked sad and confused as she spoke to anyone who would listen. “This is my first visit here to see my son. What do I do?” A few people pointed to the officer seated behind the scratched pexiglass window. As the woman numbly slid her license and keys through the window opening the Officer noted, “No hoodies allowed inside.” A look of panic came across her face as she removed the hoodie revealing a tank top and he added, “No tank tops allowed.” As she looked around with tears in her eyes another visitor handed her a sweater. Finally she could visit her son. I thought of the clothing we keep at the Family Reception center for moments like this. Visits are always difficult; dress requirements albeit necessary shouldn’t add to the humiliation and stress.
I remember the elderly grandmother who came each week with her two school age grandchildren to visit their mother, her only daughter. Her stooped body always appeared so tired. After their visits she and the children would stop by the Center located in the lobby of the jail for refreshments. As we chatted I learned that when her daughter was arrested she took a bus from South Carolina to take care of the children. Not only had she left her extended family and friends behind but she had not told them the reason for coming north. She was too embarrassed! During our weekly visits, I would gently encourage her to reach out to her family back in SC. Finally, a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving she did; her sister was coming to help. I can still hear the excitement in her voice as she thanked me for “being there.”
“Being there” may be the most important role of a volunteer at the Center. “Being there” with a smile, a kind word, a hug; “being there” with helpful information and resources to improve the situation that families’ face and assisting them through the seemingly endless reams of red tape. “Being there” for the children providing a friendly atmosphere and maybe a small, stuffed friend to take home reminding them they are not alone. “Being there” hosting a BBQ for families in the spring, filling Easter and Thanksgiving baskets, wrapping gifts and assisting Santa distribute them at the annual Christmas Party.
Corrections Officers at the Strafford County Jail support our “being there” and have often commented on the positive effect the Family Reception Center has on the inmates. Knowing there are people at the Jail that respect and care for their families encourages successful behavior.
Some who visited the Family Reception Center as guests have returned as volunteers. They know firsthand the importance of “being there.”
In the brief essay, “Until it comes to your door,” the author laments the lack of compassion often shown to families and friends of the incarcerated. “They do not know this journey that we share as causalities to the varying scenarios that brought our loved ones to incarceration. And oddly enough having once sat in that seat of innocent ignorance and condescendence what they really do not know, is that it can happen to anyone, even them.”
It is said that often those we help turn out to be healers for us, showing us important spiritual lessons that we can apply to our own situations. So it is with those who interact at the Strafford County Jail Family Reception Center. While the volunteers strive to reinforce the visitors’ dignity they are inspired by the resilience of the human spirit. Ultimately, we are all reminded that judgment must be replaced by mercy because no one knows what adversity is behind our next door.
Donna Coriaty is a member of NHCADP.
“Behind the Walls” is a series of articles featuring members who have worked with prisoners or their families. We hope to shed light on the lives that most people never see or think about.