Arizona has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country. And that means it also has one of the highest percentages of children with one or both parents in jail. Keeping those kids and parents connected is particularly difficult in the more remote parts of the state. Arizona Public Radio's Gillian Ferris Kohl reports on how Coconino County is trying to help families stay in touch without bringing kids inside prison walls.
Forty-five year old Liz Minor sits in the shade outside a coffee house in Flagstaff enjoying icy drinks with her two sons. She relishes this ordinary moment, considering that just a few years ago their time together was limited to a prison visiting room, separated by shatter-proof glass.
"I wore lipstick because it leaves marks and so when your kids are there and they're telling you it's over, you gotta go, you see windows just marked up with lips because you want to kiss your babies goodbye and you can't."
Minor's youngest son, A.J. was only seven when his mom began serving a sentence for manslaughter. Now eighteen, A.J. recalls a very different memory of visits with his mom.
"They always used to make us, not strip down all the way, but they would make us take off our shoes and open up shirts and stuff. They would pat us down and our pockets had to be turned out."
During his mom's absense, A.J. was raised by several family members since his father was also in prison, serving a life sentence. Altogether, it nearly did A.J. in.
"I did have a lot of suicidal tendencies, and it really sucked to have to go through that when you're 8, 9, 10 years old and you're thinking about going into your room and killing yourself. It's not a cool deal at all.
But instead of taking his life, A.J. took action. At just fifteen, he joined a fledgling task force that was taking shape in Coconino County. The group's goal was to keep kids connected with their parents in prison. That's where he met Beth Tucker, one of the organizers of the group.
"Our population of children and families is different than the state as a whole in that we have such great distances for our rural areas. They're traveling hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of miles to visit a parent."
Tucker says about one in every twenty-eight children in Coconino County has at least one parent in prison. Some kids, like A.J., experience the trauma of being present during their parent's arrest. Others, Tucker says, can end up on the street, fearful they'll land in foster care or in the custody of Child Protective Services.
"We know that often times when a parent is arrested they will not reveal that they have children. They're afraid they're going to lose that child."
And that's why law enforcement officers are now being trained to look for signs of children at the time of a person's arrest: toys, car seats, backpacks. Another major step is that the county is installing a Skype-like video visitation system. Lieutenant Matt Figueroa with the Sheriff's office is helping set it up.
"They can do it from a coffee house, they can do it from their iPhone or iPad. People throw out the word "Skype", but it's basically a secure video connection to conduct that visit."
Figueroa says it will also cut down on the trauma that many kids experience having to go inside prison to visit a parent. And that's heartening to kids like A.J. Minor, who says he would've liked to have had something like that when his mom was in prison.
"A visit like that would actually keep a kid from running away because they know that they can have a visit with their parent every couple of days. It's so much more nourishing. So for someone who's going through it right now, just hang on. You will be able to see them."
A.J. is trying to hang on himself when it comes to seeing his own father. They haven't met face to face in sixteen years.