Incarcerated at Christmas: Swain inmates thankful for family visitations
Swain County Detention Center became a place of reunions and redemption during the last few weeks as inmates had their first chance in over two years to see their family members face to face.
A grandmother was reunited with her daughter and her three grandchildren, two of whom she’s never met.
Several fathers — some who have been sitting in jail for more than 1,000 days waiting for their day in court — got to hold their children who barely recognized them anymore.
A mother got to hold her baby for the first time.
None of them will be with their families on Christmas Day, but thanks to Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran, they were able to remind their families how much they loved them and offer gifts to their children.
“Some of these inmates have been in jail for a long time and been away from their children, which is difficult for the parents and kids,” Cochran said. “We are not asking you to feel sorry for anyone, but a little kindness goes a long way. These people are in jail on charges but have not been to court for trial so therefore they have not been found guilty on their charges.”
A father reunites with his family and his youngest daughter whom he’d never met. Donated photo
The sheriff’s office identified more than 80 children being impacted by their parents or caregiver being incarcerated and wanted to do something special for them. Cochran put out a call in the community for donations and the call was answered by generous donations. More than $10,000 was raised, which allowed Cochran to play Santa and go shopping for all these children.
The hallway of the detention center was lined with tables full of toys for girls and boys of all ages, and the inmates were able to pick out items they knew their children would enjoy.
The visits may have been for only an hour, but it gave the inmates something to look forward to and something to keep them going a little longer. Cochran not only wanted to spread a little Christmas joy to these families but to motivate them for a better future.
“Sometimes people are put in jail and just forgotten about,” he said. “There’s a stigma that they don’t deserve anything special because they made a bad decision, but my hope is that the inmates see that they need to be with their families and not in here with me.”
Before the COVID-19 Pandemic, in-person visitations were done with a piece of glass between the inmate and the visitor. Staying connected with family has been even more difficult during the pandemic — the only contact inmates have had with loved ones has been over video chat. As any parent would tell you, there’s no substitute for being able to wrap your arms around your loved ones, especially during the holidays.
Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran shows off all the toys purchased through community donations. Jessi Stone photo
“I’ve been praying. This is a big privilege, I’m very blessed that they even have it [the opportunity to visit],” said Jamie, who’s been incarcerated for more than two years.
He walked into the visitation room with an air of nervous excitement. He peered around at the overwhelming amount of snacks and treats on the table, the Christmas tree in the corner and the wrapped gifts underneath, but they were of little interest to him as the weight of what was about to happen consumed him.
His niece and his brother were scheduled to visit. He hasn’t been able to see them in person since he became incarcerated a little over two years ago. In the midst of a pandemic, his brother had a child. Jamie has yet to hold her in his arms.
Thanks to funds donated from the community, Jamie picked out a Barbie doll for his niece and a few other items for his brother’s sons.
“She likes Barbies,” he said. “I’m going to have to trade it for a hug or a kiss or something, she’s not used to me.”
He sat on the couch that directly faces the door to the room, eagerly awaiting his family’s arrival. Wringing his hands, he doesn’t take his eyes off the doorway for more than a few seconds at a time.
“I’m OK, a little bit (nervous), not really. I just want to enjoy the moment, you know what I’m saying? I’m trying to get everything out of this that I can,” he said.
When his family finally does walk through the door Jamie has been staring a hole through, there is silence. Silence, other than the quiet Christmas music playing over the speakers. Silence throughout prolonged hugs and as tears streamed down their faces.
Only after the needed embrace do words come — words meant to express the joy at seeing one another after a void of over two years; words to convince a nervous child that this man is family, that he loves her, and most importantly, that he is loved.
The presents, for now, are left wrapped under the tree. Their time will come, but for the moment their meaning is diminished in the presence of family and the joy of connecting again.
A mother sees her children for the first time in 17 months. It was also the first time the two children had seen each other in 17 months. Donated photo
Not all of the planned visitations ended with tears of joy. Some inmates waited in vain for their loved ones. A mother called to cancel when her son decided he didn’t want to visit his father in jail.
It’s something Cochran expected to happen. He’s seen it before.
“Sometimes families just can’t handle seeing their loved ones behind bars. It’s just too hard,” he said.
Even for families that wanted to be there, work and school schedules, a lack of transportation and distance created barriers.
“What time is it?” D.J. asked.
It was 9:08 a.m. as he sat in a conference room decorated for Christmas. He’d been eagerly waiting for his two little girls to walk through the door since 9 a.m. Their grandmother was supposed to bring them for a visit. He knew it was a lot to ask of her, having lost her own daughter in September and now having to care for her granddaughters.
“But she said she’d bring them,” he said. “They were so excited over the phone to see me.”
It would be the first time he’d get to see them since he was incarcerated nearly a year ago, and it could be his last chance to see them in person before he gets sentenced for his charges in federal court.
“I have two daughters — one is 3 and the other is 5,” he said, a smile spreading across his face. “They are beautiful and smart and love to talk.”
D.J. has been at the Swain County Detention Center for two weeks, but was held at several county facilities in the region before his arrival there.
“This is the nicest jail I’ve been in so far,” he said. “But it is far from my kids.”
D.J. had carefully picked out Christmas gifts from the long table of options purchased by Sheriff Cochran using funds the community donated.
“One of my girls loves Barbies so I got her one of those and the other already thinks she’s a mom so I got her a baby to take home with her,” he said.
The other gifts were for his two sons — 7 and 9 — who weren’t able to visit that day because their mother didn’t want them to miss school, but D.J. hoped he could get the gifts back to them anyway.
“It’s the most special thing to me. I couldn’t ask for anything more. It’s going to be the best feeling in the world to see their faces,” said D.J., keeping his eyes on the door. “I told them I’m going to give them the biggest, longest hug. I know they’ll be happy to see me too.”
Though D.J. isn’t exactly sure what his future holds, he knows he could be reunited with all of his children in two years if all goes as planned. The 29-year-old plans to move back home to Buncombe County, get his GED and find a job. He wants to go to college for a business and marketing degree.
“I want to own my own business — something legit,” he said. “Spending time with my kids and helping to stabilize them — that’s my first priority.”
The mother of his two daughters died in September, leaving the girls’ maternal grandmother to take care of them since D.J. has been in jail. Though the young girls attended their mother’s funeral, they’re still too young to comprehend what has happened.
“They cry and ask where mommy is, but their grandmother just can’t bring herself to tell them she’s never coming back,” he said.
He thinks about what kind of father he’ll be when his girls are teenagers. He thinks about how much his two boys remind him of himself and his older brother when they were kids growing up together. He thinks about the things he’ll do differently than his parents as he tries to give his kids a better life. He hopes his children will understand and forgive him for his mistakes just as he forgave his parents when he was old enough to understand what they went through.
“My girls tell me, ‘you better not be bad anymore when you come home,’ so they know I’ve done wrong,” D.J. admits. “But I try not to let them know why I’m here.”
D.J.’s been watching his fellow inmates return from their family visits for the last few weeks waiting for his turn. He’s watched some of the toughest men return to their pod with tears in their eyes as they look at the pictures of their loved ones. It’s a reminder of what they have and motivation to return to them as soon as they can.
“What time is it now?” he asked again.
It was 9:48 a.m. A detention officer let him use her phone to call the grandmother. Maybe she was just running late on the way from Arden. No answer. His hour was up and the look of disappointment on his face was heartbreaking. He thanked the detention officers for their efforts, shook the sheriff’s hand and returned to his jail cell.
A father gets to hold his newborn baby for the first time.
The big picture
In 2015, more than 2.17 million people in the U.S. were in state and federal prisons and local jails, representing one of the world’s highest incarceration rates. In late 2015, the U.S. incarceration rate was 698 per 100,000 population. In comparison, rates for all European countries were under 200 per 100,000 and Canada stood at 106 per 100,000.
More than half of all incarcerated people in the U.S. are parents, and children are often referred to as the “hidden victims” of the criminal justice system. Research shows that children with incarcerated parents are more likely to experience mental health issues and have difficulty performing well in school.
According to a study done by the National Institute of Justice, the children of incarcerated parents are on average six times more likely to become incarcerated themselves for a variety of reasons, which is why it’s important for children to maintain a healthy connection with their parents during incarceration.
“But the research shows that some children develop resilience despite the risks if they have a strong social support system. Through visits, letter writing, and other forms of contact, an incarcerated parent can play an important positive role in a child’s sphere of support,” the report found.
Since the War on Drugs began in the 1980s, the rate of children with incarcerated mothers has increased 100 percent and the rate of incarcerated fathers increased 75 percent.
Many jails in Western North Carolina were not designed to accommodate the growing number of women being incarcerated , which is why counties like Haywood are looking at a $16 million expansion project to its detention center.
Staff writer Hannah McLeod contributed to this report
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Well Done Sheriff Cochran
God bless you and yours.
A healthy 2022 to you and yours.