RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. And the state of Arizona has one of the highest incarceration rates in the U.S. That adds up to one of the highest percentages of children with one or both parents in jail. Arizona Public Radio's Gillian Ferris Kohl reports on how one rural county is trying to help families stay connected.
GILLIAN FERRIS KOHL, BYLINE: Forty-five-year-old Liz Minor sits in the shade outside a coffeehouse 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 shatterproof glass.
LIZ MINOR: I wore lipstick because it leaves marks. And so when your kids are all there and they're telling you it's over, that you've got to go, you see windows just marked up with lips because you're wanting to kiss your babies goodbye and you can't.
KOHL: Minor's youngest son, A.J., was only 7 when his mom began serving a sentence for manslaughter. Now 18, A.J. recalls a very different memory of visits with his mom.
A.J. MINOR: They always used to like 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.
KOHL: During his mom's absence, 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.
A. MINOR: I did have a lot of suicidal tendencies. And it really sucked to have to go through that when you're 8, 9 and 10 years old, and 11 years old, and you're thinking about going into your room and killing yourself.
KOHL: But instead of taking his life, A.J. took action. At just 15, he joined a fledgling task force that was taking shape in Coconino County, Arizona. The group's goal was to keep kids connected with their parents in prison. And that's where he met Beth Tucker, one of the group's organizers.
BETH TUCKER: Our population of children and families is different than the state as a whole. We have such great distances for our rural areas of families. They're traveling hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of miles to visit a parent.
KOHL: Tucker says about 1 in every 28 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.
TUCKER: We know that oftentimes when parents are arrested, they will not reveal that they have children. They're afraid they're going to lose the child.
KOHL: 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.
MATT FIGUEROA: They can do it from a coffeehouse. They can do it from their iPhone, iPad. You know, people throw out the word Skype, but it's basically a secure video connection to be able to conduct that visit.
KOHL: 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 something like this when his mom was in prison.
A. MINOR: A visit with your parent like that would actually keep a kid from running away, because they know that if they stay there they can have a visit with their parent every week, every couple of days. It's so much more nourishing. For someone that's going through it right now, hang on. You will be able to see them.
KOHL: A.J. is trying to hang on himself when it comes to seeing his own father. They haven't met face-to-face in 16 years.
For NPR News, I'm Gillian Ferris Kohl in Flagstaff.
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