It’s visiting time at the Washington County jail in Stillwater, and children wait behind heavy banging doors in the packed lobby to see Dad or Mom. Serious-looking people in uniforms and badges shepherd the young ones through a beeping metal detector.

It’s a tough place to be a kid.

“They come to a jail, cold hard steel, scary rules and regulations, and it’s anxious and stressful,” said Roger Heinen, jail commander for the Sheriff’s Office.

That’s about to change. In what apparently is the first family-style makeover of a Minnesota jail, “kid-friendly” features soon will help soften the shock of seeing parents wearing strange clothes behind a glass panel.

Heinen and his crew plan to add children’s books, install murals of diverse families and age-appropriate signs, and bring in volunteers to explain to children what they will encounter when they enter secure areas of the jail.

“We know it’s not the families’ or the kids’ fault that their loved one is incarcerated. Stuff just happens,” Heinen said. “That connection between … the child and the parent in jail is really strong, and it changes inmates’ behavior knowing they have something to look forward to — to keep that connection going.”

The Washington County program is part of the University of Minnesota’s “Sesame Street” study to measure how incarceration affects children of prisoners. The study also includes Dakota County and Dane and Racine counties in Wisconsin, where planning is still in the beginning stages.

Rebecca Shlafer, an assistant professor in the Pediatrics Department, and her postdoctoral project leader, Laurel Davis, observed and interviewed families who came to the Washington County jail over a two-year period.

“One thing we found is that children experience a variety of emotions over the time they’re in a jail facility,” Davis said. “They can be happy and scared at the same time.”

That got the attention of Sheriff Bill Hutton, who said he was “blown away” by research showing children of prisoners are more likely to offend when they grow up. He agrees with the researchers that treating kids right at the jail isn’t going “soft on crime,” but is a smart way of preventing it. “When people are in my jail, we want them to be better when they leave,” he said. “We’re jumping all in on this one because we think it’s that important.”

‘Kind of like a day care’

Many of the 180 or so inmates in the Washington County jail’s daily count are fathers and mothers. The average stay is six days, but some inmates spend a year in the jail.

Five days a week, families jam the jail’s lobby while waiting to enter one of 10 visiting booths where they can see their loved ones. Visitation times often are hectic, Heinen said.

“It is kind of like a day care. It’s like going to the Department of Motor Vehicles,” he said. “Everybody comes, you bring your kids, your purses, your baby strollers, people are running around, they’ve got to talk to somebody, people have to pass the metal detector, you’ve got to wait your turn, it’s a hustle and bustle, controlled chaos. The kids, they’re all anxious to see their parents. It can get busy.”

Hutton said the Sheriff’s Office considered implementing video visitation, as many jails do. But it was decided that face-to-face visitation through a glass barrier was more personal. “It’s got to be overwhelming,” he said of what children see and hear in jail.

Shlafer initiated the research study after meeting with county officials and learning they were very interested. “The partnership grew from there,” she said.

Findings of the study, which began in 2013 and lasted for about two years, will be published in a journal, Davis said.

“It’s completely new. They really are at the forefront,” Davis said of Washington County’s jail staff. “We’re hoping they will be an example for other corrections environments.”

Help from ‘Sesame Street’

The Washington County program is helping researchers explore how books and a video produced by “Sesame Street,” the children’s TV show, are received by families of prisoners. Those materials, titled “Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration,” help children ask questions and share their feelings (see http://tinyurl.com/jail-toolkit).

“Grown-ups make their own choices and sometimes the wrong choices,” an empathetic woman in the video tells a puppet character who doesn’t want to tell his friends that his dad went to prison. The video and books explain that parents behind bars violated “grown-up rules” and that the children had nothing to do with it.

Hutton said he doesn’t expect the kid-friendly changes will cost much because of the collaborative nature of the project.

Announcements to enter the jail will be made in person rather than over an intercom from behind security glass, and lobby pictures will show kids they’re not alone in a difficult environment. A redesigned website is coming soon on what they can expect when passing through the metal detector and enter the visiting booth. Books will be made available so children can read to inmates, or vice versa, via phone in the visiting booth.

County kiosks will offer help with taxes, library cards, immunizations, health insurance, domestic violence, food assistance and school supplies.

“We just want to make sure it’s more supportive, more family-friendly, more of a positive experience, because we know that there is a lot of stress in the real world, so adding to that stress here doesn’t help,” Heinen said.

Washington County Commissioner Karla Bigham said she’s proud of the Sheriff’s Office for its leadership and of other county agencies that have pledged to help.

“We want to make sure the kids don’t experience long-term effects of something that wasn’t even their fault,” she said. “It’s a great example of how we can collaborate with different organizations and make a difference.”