Visiting a loved one in jail is traumatic enough without having to pass through a hellhole on your way in. At the Hartford Correctional Center on Weston Street, recent renovations forced the relocation of the visitors' entrance from the front of the building to the back, where it was replaced by a ghastly mess.
Although the state Department of Corrections embarked on the $27 million renovation in March 2002, this jury-rigged entrance remains visitors' only access. To be fair, much of the construction, including a new gym, kitchen and visitors' lobby, will benefit the prisoners. But for now, it's wreaking havoc.
To visit someone, you must drive or walk down the pot-holed length of Fishfry Street to where it ends at the railroad tracks. After passing along a 20-foot-high chain-link fence rimmed top and bottom by rolled razor wire, you go through two metal gates and congregate with dozens of other visitors in an airless room that affords absolutely no privacy. A few chairs are scattered on the linoleum floor, and a cardboard box labeled "Books" sits on a radiator. In it are crumpled newspapers and one young adult novel, the ironically titled "Slave for a Day," by Jana Ellis.
Of the 1,021 men incarcerated in the Hartford lock-up, most are being held pretrial because they can't afford to post bail. Adding insult to injury, in this hostile environment, it's hard to remember the presumption of innocence.
"Whether you're there on a personal visit or a professional one, it's a disgraceful way to be treated," says Margaret Levy, a Hartford lawyer who specializes in criminal law and frequently visits clients there. "There used to be five or six visiting areas, and while they weren't wonderful, they were utilitarian. Now, it's a dreadfully depressing place - there's got to be a better way."
There is. According to Department of Corrections spokesman Brian Garnett, long-awaited renovations to the original lobby will begin next month. Let's hope the new space is designed to afford families visiting incarcerated loved ones the privacy and dignity we all deserve.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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