Two days before Christmas, two teenage girls brim with updates for their mom — details of a new job, plans for winter break, their dream list of presents. Their mother, Jennifer Watkins, shares her dream, too — the new house she hopes the three of them will share one day.
She hugs them and marvels at how tall her 14-year-old has grown and how her 16-year-old looks more like a woman than a teenager now, changes too slow for kids to notice and too fast for a parent to accept.
Watkins kisses them goodbye. The girls leave through one door, the one that leads to the lobby and then back home. Their mom leaves through another door, to return to her cell at the Mecklenburg County detention center.
Watkins will be here another year to serve the remainder of her sentence after a DWI conviction, and she relies on pictures of her girls to get her through their time apart. Until she goes home to them and that dream house, the three will meet here every few months in the child-friendly visitation room. For 40 minutes, amid bright blue walls and bean bag chairs, the family can almost forget where they are.
“Being a parent and being incarcerated, whenever you do get the opportunity to see your kids, you’ve gotta take it all in,” Watkins says. Her composure cracks, and she cries. “I’m missing a lot of things in my kids’ lives, and I wish I could be there for them. But I can’t.”
In a beige hallway in a beige jail, a striped door painted with a teddy bear and flying blue pony leads to a bright blue room.
Inside are racks of children’s books. A bilingual activity rug. A mural reading, “You are BRAVER than you believe, STRONGER than you seem.” More painted ponies and bears.
Welcome to the child-friendly visitation room in Mecklenburg County’s Uptown detention center. The jail added this room last spring, a few months after Sheriff Garry McFadden reinstituted in-person visits for children, fulfilling his campaign promise and ending two years of a video-only visitation policy. Here, inmates, their kids, and their kids’ caregivers can play and read together in a room that doesn’t feel like a jail at all.
It may seem like an interesting choice during a hard time for Charlotte. During a year when the city had 107 homicides — the highest number in 26 years — and saw increases in violent crime across the board, why would the sheriff’s priorities include a visitation room painted with ponies and bears?
The bright blue room is actually a crime-fighting and community-building tool, McFadden and experts say. Research points to powerful effects of child-friendly visits in correctional facilities, both for the inmates and their children. One study that followed 16,240 offenders in Minnesota after release from prison found that those who received a visit while incarcerated were 13 percent less likely to commit a new felony and 25 percent less likely to have a technical parole violation.
More visits and more visitors led to better outcomes. A Canadian study showed that inmates who received private, three-day family visits reduced prison readmission by 12.2 percent per visit, with cumulative effects. In jails and prisons in this country and beyond, studies show that these rooms have improved inmates’ behavior while in jail and decreased their chances of re-offending and returning here after they’ve left.
Plus, it helps the kids.
“Children haven’t done anything (wrong). They’re innocent victims here and they really have a right to see their parents and touch them and have a relationship with them,” says Julie Poehlmann-Tynan, a clinical child psychologist who studies how parental incarceration affects kids. “Punishing children for their parents’ misdeeds creates negative intergenerational effects for the future.”
Improving inmates’ conduct while in jail and increasing their odds for success beyond it. Helping children escape negative cycles. If all that’s true, why is this room among only a handful of child-friendly visitation rooms in jails across the country?
A year ago, this room was empty, unused, and beige. After McFadden restored child-friendly visitations, he spotted the small cinderblock space — about 11 feet square — and had an idea.
“I don’t need a committee or someone to tell me what to do,” McFadden says. “I saw this vacant room, and I said ‘OK, somebody order carpet. Somebody paint it blue. Somebody find some pictures. Somebody find some stencils.’ How hard is it to create this?”
Before becoming sheriff in 2018, McFadden was a retired homicide detective and a 34-year CMPD veteran. He’s created relationships with residents of at-risk communities, visits churches across town, and walks the halls of this detention center to talk with everyone from inmates to kitchen staff to administrators. He even follows up with some former inmates — he calls them alumni — to remind them he doesn’t want to see them back here. This experience and these relationships have led to an impatience with bureaucratic process.
“This room was created with paint and stencils and beanbags,” McFadden says. “Don’t have someone come in and study this for $20,000 when I can make this for less than $3,000.”
Still, for as clear as it seems to him and others, McFadden is a controversial sheriff at a controversial time. His decision to pull out of a program that turns all undocumented immigrants over to ICE has drawn plenty of criticism from top Republicans, including Senator Thom Tillis. And locally, many conversations about last year’s crime rate centered on repeat offenders.
So the small room sits in the middle of a larger ethical debate: Are correctional facilities places of punishment or healing? Do inmates deserve playtime with their kids? Or are these bonding opportunities part of their responsibility as parents, even while incarcerated?
To McFadden, the room isn’t about what inmates deserve to get. It’s about what they’re obliged to give. Simply being here is a punishment, he says, being separated from community in a jail that dictates how inmates spend their time and what they wear.
When inmates leave, McFadden wants them to return to families that they’ve remained close to, to jobs they’re qualified to begin, with coping skills to handle challenges. He wants to rebuild their sense of dignity in self and remind them of their duty to others. As long as they pose no risk to their family, he encourages inmates to visit their children here.
It’s not their reward, he says. It’s their duty.
“When do we start preparing (an inmate) to re-enter into society? I say the day that they get here. … Human dignity and respect plays a part,” McFadden says.
He believes it’s his job to prepare these inmates to become good neighbors after they leave. “How do you want me to prepare your neighbor? So if I beat this guy all day and keep him locked in a cage and he gets out, what’s he going to do?”
McFadden wasn’t the first North Carolina sheriff to paint teddy bears on jail walls. Gerald Hege, elected sheriff of Davidson County in 1994, did so as well — for very different reasons.
Hege believed that pink walls, teddy bear murals, and candy-striped colored uniforms would shame inmates into better behavior. In Hege’s first six months as sheriff, serious injuries in his jail tripled. The State Bureau of Investigation found his jailers guilty of neglect and of exchanging sex with inmates for favors. Hege resigned after pleading guilty to two felony counts of obstruction of justice.
Contrast those tactics with ones in Mecklenburg County. Under Irwin Carmichael, McFadden’s predecessor, the department created a barber school inside the jail and added classrooms to allow inmates to earn high school degrees. McFadden hosted a career fair here and created the state’s first voluntary behavioral health unit inside a jail.
McFadden also restored in-person visits for children. For 40 minutes, a jail resident can simply be mom or dad; a kid can just be somebody’s child.
Residents can have a visit in the child-friendly room once every 60 days, with video visits in between. Since these visits began, McFadden’s seen inmates bond while talking about their children, and he’s overheard inmates and deputies share parenting tips, like how to soothe a teething baby.
“I understand data and data’s a beautiful thing,” McFadden says. “But data can’t measure the gait of a man who’s about to see his child. It can’t measure what it means to someone to have the smell of their child still on their clothes from where their head was resting. That’s bringing back humanity.”
Yet for a man who grows impatient with data and studies, the data and studies support McFadden. For nearly 50 years, studies have shown that contact with children correlates with improved inmate behavior and decreased chances of re-offending.
The benefits extend to another at-risk group.
“Do inmates deserve this?” tends to be the first question people ask when they hear about the child-friendly visitation room. A tougher question follows.
Do children deserve this?
About 2.7 million American kids have an incarcerated parent right now, and more than 5 million will at some point during their childhoods. Latino kids are twice as likely to have a parent in jail or prison. African-American kids are seven times more likely.
That’s more than 5 million kids who are vulnerable to risks associated with having an incarcerated parent. Depression. Antisocial behavior. Food insecurity. Home displacement. Many of these children feel abandoned by the incarcerated parent, which can hamper their emotional and social skills for the rest of their lives.
This bright blue room comes with controversy. While both Carmichael and McFadden support educational and vocational programs in jails, they disagree about visitation.
“McFadden and I have the same views. We want people to succeed. We want people to be returned back out (to the community),” Carmichael says. “But visitation? It comes with a risk.”
Carmichael likes the idea of contact visits with children, but he fears that in-person visits will introduce contraband into the jail. Even with the benefits these visits have, Carmichael believes the contraband risk isn’t worth the risk to the safety.
McFadden disagrees. Contraband will always be an issue in a jail, he says, but scanners minimize the risk.
Experts believe the risk is worth taking. The American Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Standards on the Treatment of Prisoners recommends that inmates who are confined more than 30 days should be allowed contact visits with family, especially with their children.
The American Correctional Association advocates for “family-friendly policies” in which video visits supplement in-person visits but don’t replace them. Yet jails trend the other way. Of about 600 American correctional facilities that have adopted video visitation, about three quarters have reduced or ended in-person visits.
This simple room, created with less than Charlotte’s median cost of three months’ rent and a gut decision, puts Mecklenburg County’s detention center on the forefront of policies backed by experts in both law enforcement and behavioral health.
Poehlmann-Tynan studies how kids handle visits to see incarcerated parents. She conducts observational studies that evaluate kids’ body language, facial expressions, and behavior during three types of visits: across plexiglass, over video, and contact visits.
Plexiglass visits, she says, create stress in children because they can’t understand why they can’t touch a parent who sits just inches away.
Kids do better with video visits — many kids are used to FaceTime — but some still get anxious talking to a parent without touching them. And, according to Watkins, video visits are prone to technical difficulties. It’s hard to have a good conversation when the audio cuts out or video lags.
The gold standard, to Poehlmann-Tynan, is a contact visit in a child-friendly room. These visits create quality bonding opportunities, and they even improve kids’ self esteem and school performance. When Poehlmann-Tynan describes the ideal child-friendly environment, she practically describes the room in the Mecklenburg County’s detention center: bright colors, bean bag chairs, books, and games.
These rooms are rare in jails, however. Off the top of her head, Poehlmann-Tynan can count four, including the one in Charlotte.
“There are really only a handful that I know about, but I think they’re really fantastic,” she says. “It’s actually good prevention because it’s trying to help high-risk children develop solid relationships and break intergenerational cycles. (These rooms are) really looking into the future.”
When Watkins visits with her girls later this year, the three may gather in a different room. Encouraged by what he’s seen in the little blue room, McFadden wants to open a much larger child-friendly visitation room to accommodate multiple families at once. He’s found the space: a large, two-story, long-unused training room in the jail’s lower level.
He envisions rows of booths, allowing multiple families to meet around tables as if they’re in a restaurant. Maybe they’ll play games, read together, or simply talk. He looks at the stairs, and he pictures each stair painted a bright color.
“Imagine paint. This is orange, this is yellow, this is blue. It’s a rainbow. Imagine this (room) is bustling,” McFadden says, exploring the space. He points to a dutch door with a small empty room behind it, and he smiles. “What’s being served here? Kids’ treats.”
This room already has a guard station; it already has bathrooms. A TV hangs on the wall. He predicts this could be another low-budget way to create a high-impact space. His goal is to walk in this room later this year to the sound of laughter and conversation.
“I don’t need funding,” McFadden says, looking around the mostly empty room. “I just need someone to paint it.”
Jen Tota McGivney is a writer in Charlotte. Reach her at email@example.com or on Twitter, @jen_mcgivney.
Join us: This story is made possible with the help of Agenda Members. If you’d like to support more reporting, photography, and storytelling like this, become an Agenda Member.