SACRAMENTO — Christina Hayes' heart aches each time she waits in the lobby of Sacramento's downtown jail to see her incarcerated son.
"It kills me to see my son behind bars," Hayes said. "You can't touch him. You can't hug him."
For Shayshay Cox, whose fiancé is locked up on robbery charges, the heartache is seeing pregnant young women in the waiting room or young mothers with strollers or toddlers in their arms.
"I don't know how they do it," Cox said.
For security officer Matt Carpenter, it pains him to see children grow up between visits.
"The hardest part of the job is to see children be exposed to ... something that most kids shouldn't see," said Carpenter, who works the front desk in the lobby.
Hundreds of people pass each day through the Sacramento County Main Jail waiting area with its high ceilings, dim lighting and tan walls. The visitors wait, the guards watch, and tensions and emotions roil in this no-man's land between a world of regulations and freedom.
The only lives that seem unaffected are the colorful African cichlids swimming serenely inside a brightly lit fish tank that separates the waiting area from the secured zone.
"It's nerve-wrecking coming here," said Hayes, a 38-year-old Citrus Heights resident. She has become familiar with visitation protocols since starting faithful visits last April, when her son was arrested for being involved in a fight, she said.
Signs posted on the doors and the bullet-resistant glass at the front desk explain the rules. To make an appointment to see an inmate, visitors have to show identification. Sometimes they wait minutes, sometimes hours, and sometimes they're told to come back a different day. Inmates are allowed only two social visits a week. The guards, Hayes said, aren't too pleased if you ask questions for which the signs have answers.
Hayes is like an unofficial docent, guiding first-time visitors. One recent evening, she stood by the desk where people filled out visitation forms when a woman with a cane and a toddler in a stroller walked in, looking lost.
A guard at the entrance's metal detector directed the woman, but she looked perplexed, so Hayes stepped in.
Hayes showed the woman a roster of inmates and how to use the information to fill out a form. She told her to wait in line beside the fish tank to get an appointment from the guards in the booth.
Security officer Jerry Dyer said friendships sometimes are formed through such encounters.
"There's a bit of camaraderie that goes on here," Dyer said.
Near the exit doors, sitting on one of the few seats in the lobby, Yadira Olea had an hour to wait before she could see her father.
More than two months ago, police pulled Olea's father over in Stockton at a stop sign and found out he was in the country illegally, Olea said.
Since then, the 22-year-old Stockton resident has driven 50 miles to the jail twice a week, gone through the metal detectors, filled out the visitation forms and waited.
The hardest part, she said, is that she has to tell her father everything is going to be OK.
"You have to put on your best face," Olea said.
As a recent evening wore on, the crowds ebbed and flowed. Occasionally, a child's cry or a guard's voice over the speaker interrupted the drone of visitors talking to each other in low voices.
Outside the jail, Cox, the 23-year-old Bay Area resident waiting to see her fiancé, said she tries to visit him twice a week.
Each time she wonders: "What is the visit going to be like? Am I going to be strong and not cry? Am I going to be strong and not flip out at the guards?"
She said the guards are rude, and she feels judged.
There's no judging, Carpenter said.
"It may feel that way because the officers have some time constraint as to how much time they can spend with each visitor," he said.
Some visitors get frustrated by the many rules: no talking on cell phones; all belongings have to be placed in lockers; people accompanying visitors cannot loiter in the lobby.
Carpenter's partner, security officer Tom Harrison, explained that the rules are meant to protect everyone.
Dyer said the jail – by its very nature – can be intimidating. And emotions run high.
"A lot of times this is the end of the line for a lot of relationships," Carpenter said. "A lot of times people are in shock. They can't believe a family member is in here."
Christine Race, 45, a Carmichael resident whose son is awaiting trial on charges she did not want to divulge, said it depends on who is on duty.
She has learned to time her visits to coincide with the shifts of officers she likes – Dyer, Carpenter and Harrison.
"They are very helpful," Race said. They don't "make you feel degraded to see your family."