Everyone who walks through these doors has a story to tell.
About a baby whose father has never held him. About a fiance who pleaded guilty to shooting another man in the face. About a 20-year-old son accused of aggravated indecent liberties with a child.
Last year, 48,567 people walked through the doors of the lobby of the Sedgwick County Jail to visit husbands, wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, mothers, fathers, siblings, aunts, uncles and friends.
The Sheriff’s Office handled an average of 206 visits a day last year. An Eagle reporter sat among loved ones during visiting hours – 1 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. – one day last month to get a glimpse of what goes on in the lobby.
Starting this fall, family members and friends will have the option of Internet visitation. For a fee, they’ll be able to chat screen-to-screen with inmates from home instead of going downtown to the jail. Sheriff Jeff Easter said he hopes to have requests for proposals out to vendors by August and go out for bid in September.
Some family members don’t have cars to get to the jail for visits, he said. Others might be out of town or state.
Much as they do to receive phone calls from inmates, family and friends will be able to set up an account with the jail’s Internet visitation vendor. Fees will go to the Sheriff’s Office’s Christian ministry program. Online visits will be monitored by a deputy in the pod. When the jail starts offering Internet visitation, in-person visitation also will change. Instead of sitting face-to-face separated by glass, visitors will chat with inmates on a computer screen.
“We’re trying to cut down on movement within the jail,” Easter said.
Easter thinks Internet visitation will help more inmates stay in touch with family and friends.
“It’s better for inmates to have contact with family members so that when they get out, they still have that connection,” he said.
Waiting to visit
Unlike on some days, there isn’t a huge line of people when the jail opens for visitation.
People of all ages slowly trickle in, some of them children.
A woman with a baby in a stroller said she is visiting her ex-boyfriend awaiting trial. She said he’s a habitual violator who needs to learn his lesson.
A middle-aged man notes that “people look anxious going in and depressed going out.”
Women outnumber men in the lobby all day.
Bail bondsmen stop by to get people out of jail. Family members stop by to add money to inmates’ accounts so they can buy snacks, personal hygiene items and stamps.
A woman waits to see her boyfriend, who’s been in jail since April 8. The man’s mother waits with her.
They take turns visiting and holding the man’s baby in their laps. The girlfriend, who does not want to be named, asks to go by the name “Susie.”
Accused of theft, the man has never held his son, Susie said.
“I don’t know if it’s because I miss him, but I see his dad in him,” she said of the baby, now 21/2 months old.
Susie has been dating the 32-year-old man for two years.
Her mother and sister were with her at the hospital for the birth of her baby.
She said she looks forward to visiting her boyfriend, though she’d rather it not be in jail.
“I tell him about how me and the baby are doing,” she said. “When he got arrested, it kind of left me in a bad spot.”
This is not the first time he’s been in trouble, she said, adding she isn’t angry with him.
“I’m disappointed,” she said. “He’s mad at himself. He knows he did it to himself.”
She said she likely would continue to come down to the jail to visit her boyfriend. Others in the lobby said they probably would take advantage of Internet visitation from home, depending on the cost. Easter said the vendor will set the fees, not the Sheriff’s Office.
Valerie Griffin has visited her fiance every week for three months. He admitted shooting a man in the head last August in south Wichita, pleading guilty to two charges of aggravated battery and one charge of aggravated assault.
Her lips brightly glossed, Griffin said she gets to spend two hours visiting him because he works in the jail cleaning pods. Most inmates get one hour a week. They can have as many as four people on their visitation list. Visitors must pass a background check, show identification and go through a security gate to see an inmate.
The jail has 65 booths for visitation. Family and friends watch an electronic screen to see when it’s their turn and what booth they’re assigned.
Griffin chats easily with guards and other visitors. She asks about whether she can smoke an electronic cigarette in the lobby.
She jokes that it smells like a pina colada.
About 4:15 p.m., everyone in the lobby is a woman or child.
Then a man and woman come in with three children. They all try to go visit at the same time when it is their turn, but a deputy splits them up. One adult is allowed at a time. Children can accompany an adult.
One of the children, a blond-haired toddler, begins crying when he is separated from the man.
The woman and man take turns visiting their loved one. When the woman comes out after a few minutes, she sighs heavily and wipes away tears.
Behind her, a woman comes out from a visitation booth feeding a baby with a bottle.
Another child with the man and woman starts singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” and then screams he wants to go home.
The woman scoots him outside.
Visitation shuts down at 5:30 p.m. for 90 minutes.
When the lobby opens back up at 7 p.m., a storm is blowing across Wichita.
The mix of visitors is more equally split in the evening between men and women.
More deputies, including a reserve deputy, are set up in the lobby. One announces when inmates are ready and what booth they’re at.
Nine children sit in the lobby as people come and go, some of them sopping wet from rain.
A little boy wearing a tuxedo T-shirt runs around the lobby.
A woman with a baby boy in a car seat and three other children – two boys and a girl – comes in to visit the woman’s 20-year-old son. The girl rocks the baby’s car seat with her foot and sings “Hush, little baby, don’t say a word. Momma’s gonna buy you a mockingbird.”