Visitation program allows kids to see dad behind bars

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When it comes to having a parent behind bars, sometimes it’s the kids who pay the biggest penalty.

“She started having nightmares, she couldn’t sleep, she was really having a hard time facing this,” says Pilar Molina of her 9-year-old daughter during the time her husband was detained at York County Prison. He was held for five months.

But in that time Molina never visited with her kids, because her husband thought the visit would be too traumatic, speaking through a glass wall.

Inmates can get a chance to see and hug their kids through a court order, but that rarely happens in York County. And it’s never happened for incarcerated dads. The warden says it’s because outside caregivers don’t request them.

“I’ve been at the prison 15 years and it’s always been the policy that there are no contact visits,” says Warden Mary Sabol.

But the Prison Board is looking to change that. Contact visits may soon be regularly allowed.

“It gives that offender something to look forward to, and it helps that child to continue the bond with their parent,” says Bev Mackereth, secretary of the Department of Public Works.

Officials visited Lehigh County Prison to learn how the contact visit program works there. It was one of the first county facilities in the state to create such a program.

That jail has a child-friendly room with toys. The visits are held once a month, for an hour. Inmates must attend a parenting class to participate.

Inmate Raymond Halleran is serving a one-year sentence for retail theft. He says he struggled with a heroin addiction.

His crime and addiction strained his relationship with his three teenage daughters, but he says in-person visits have helped to repair it.

“I didn’t want them to see me though the glass,” he says. “I think it was more of how I felt about what I did and I didn’t want to hurt them anymore, I guess than what I had already done.”

Halleran says his kids are more comfortable talking during the in-person visits and it’s easier on them.

“We were very close, and the couple of years that things got kind of bad was a lot of hurt between a lot of us,” he says. “But it’s coming back and it’s wonderful.”

The security risk is a big concern for the York County Prison Board, and Lehigh guards did catch one incident where drugs were smuggled into the jail in a child’s diaper.

But prison officials say the benefits outweigh the risks. The board is reviewing ways to design the visitation program, create a child-friendly space at York County Prison, and put security staff in place.