Visiting Day Is No Escape From Reality : Castaic: They endure the arduous weekly task for a common reason: Someone they love is behind bars at the Peter J. Pitchess Honor Rancho.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's 10:30 a.m. and Sherry Mahoney is in a hurry. She's hustling her six children out of the car and onto the asphalt parking lot, one hand busily brushing 6-year-old daughter Lina's hair. She simultaneously stuffs barrettes in her pockets for wayward ponytails, all the while barking commands at the other five children.

"OK you guys, let's go," she says, now satisfied that the children--all dressed in white--look their best for their weekly visit with their father. "We gotta hurry up and get in line."

It's another Sunday at Peter J. Pitchess Honor Rancho in Castaic, where more than 8,000 men live in five jail facilities ranging from minimum to maximum security on 3,000 acres.

Mahoney and her six children join 3,441 other visitors on this day--like most Saturdays and Sundays--waiting nearly two hours to see a prisoner. The adults try to cope with throngs of hyperactive children, who fidget and whine, and wait their turn to board an old jail bus for the two-mile ride from the holding area to the jail facility. And worst of all, they face the disappointment of having visitation canceled because of a fight inside one of the jails.

The visitors form a society within a society, a micro-culture where people come to know and recognize each other and share the same complaints about the tedious waiting process. They come in all shapes and sizes, all colors of the human mosaic and have one common bond: Someone they love is in jail.

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In the line of glum and bored visitors, Diedra Hopkins stands out. She's the only one who looks happy, chatting with a newfound friend in line. She talks fast and throws her shaved head back to laugh, while holding onto a Bible. She looks happy.

"My son wanted me to bring the Bible," says Hopkins, 46, of Inglewood. "He found the Lord in jail . . . not that the Lord was lost." She laughs again. Her companion in line, a Bible in her hand too, laughs along.

Hopkins' son has been in the maximum-security facility since December and is awaiting sentencing for being an accessory to murder. This is his fourth stint in jail. "The other times were for drugs," she says, more subdued. But, she adds, this time he has changed.

"He holds Bible study meetings in the jail," she says proudly. "He has introduced three people to the Lord. It took this for him to wake up and smell the coffee."

Today, when she visits with her son, they will quote Scriptures together.

"Now, my baby is saved, " she smiles. "Out in the street, he was into everything."

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About 20 women step out of a blue minivan and walk purposefully to the jail check-in area around 9:30 a.m. The words "Family Unity" are emblazoned on the side of their van in big white letters. Al Grant lingers protectively nearby.

Grant and his wife, Leola, founded Family Unity 15 years ago. The social service agency provides rides to jail visitors living in South-Central Los Angeles. He asks for a $20 donation for the 80-mile round trip and picks people up at Will Rogers Memorial Park in Watts. Those who don't have the money ride free.

The Grants rely on donations and on the money collected from the Saturday and Sunday visitors, which usually number 60 each day. Family Unity offers counseling to these women, but few take advantage.

Grant says he has seen many of the same women visiting inmates, on and off, for years. "They are loyal to the man," he says. "Two months after the guy gets out, we see the lady back on the bus again."

Grant says he hates that so many of the visitors are cavalier about imprisonment. To some, visiting jail is routine. And he hates that so many bring their kids along.

"I don't think kids should be allowed inside a facility until they are older. They should be counseled, to get a better understanding of why their fathers or brothers are in jail. Many of the male role models are in jail, and the kids think it's a big deal to be in jail. It's cool to them, it's glorified. But they don't see that the person broke a law."

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Craig Johnson, 26, a first-time visitor, is nervous.

With his brown hair and fraternity-boy-gone-yuppie looks, Johnson and his blond-haired wife, Angie, looked and felt out of place among all the black and brown people. So he read a newspaper, frowned a lot and tried to ignore the 750 other people waiting with him. Angie buried her nose in a Danielle Steele novel.

He came from Canoga Park, and he came expecting the worst. But except for the large number of visitors, the wait wasn't so bad. "Everyone seems nice," said Johnson, sitting in the visitors area. "They don't seem like they're here to visit somebody who did something wrong."

But wasn't that precisely why he was here, too?

Well, yes, he allows. And then he quickly turns back to the newspaper.

"Hopefully, we'll never have to do this again. I would come back, probably just to give her a ride," he says, motioning toward Maria Uliczki, a friend who had accompanied the pair to the jail. The trio was visiting a mutual friend. Uliczki had visited jails before, so this was no big deal.

"I don't want to come back," Johnson says.

Visiting the jails is a test of patience.

By 8 a.m., an hour before visits begin each weekend day, the line is already taking shape. Visitors fill out pink passes and take their place in a maze-like path, as if lining up for a ride at Disneyland. The line creeps slowly forward, children amusing themselves by swinging on the metal bars.

By 11:30 the sun is beating down on the yard, now strewn with empty potato chip bags, discarded orange juice bottles, Slurpee cups and pulverized hot dogs, cookies and doughnuts, smashed to death by the hundreds of kids running around.

Some visitors read. Some chat. Some don't do anything. The more experienced the visitor, the less bothered they seem by the wait.

The first milestone of the wait comes when visitors reach the airport-style X-ray machine. The next milestone is reaching the metal detector.

With those hurdles cleared, they wait for a seat on a bus that transports 39 people at a time to the jail facility. Each of the six old, rickety buses logs about 115 miles per day.

Once on board, the atmosphere becomes more congenial. People talk to each other more and even laugh. Women repair their hair and lipstick, or feed their babies.

The visitors file off the bus at the new maximum-security facility, walking quickly, pulling children along. As soon as they vacate their bus seats, those seats are filled with visitors returning to the starting point.

It's easy to recognize the returnees. They look worn and sad.

Since 1985, Sammy Abdo has been providing fast food for the visitors at the Honor Rancho out of his catering truck. The big sellers are beef tacos, and the hot dogs smothered with grilled onions. The smell of grilled onions is everywhere. Abdo, from Egypt, is a building contractor during the week. He says he learned to speak Spanish from his customers at the Honor Rancho.

"Two-fifty," he says to his customer as he takes his money. "That's it, big guy." He smiles at everyone, and he says he tries to make being here as pleasant as he can.

"It's fun coming out here," he says sarcastically. "If you like headaches, you'll like this. They always try to give you crap."

Like the young man with the baseball cap who tries to nonchalantly walk around Abdo's fold-up money table without paying for his beef taco. "Hey, hey, hey," Abdo yells. "Yeah, I saw you. It's $1.25." The young man has an incredulous look on his face, as if he thought tacos were free. He gives up the cash, and Abdo grins and shakes his head.

Sheriff's deputies say they make random searches in the 1,200-space parking lot. Sunday, as visiting hours were about to end, deputies stop two women driving a dark-blue, late-model Toyota Celica with a Texas license plate. In the trunk, inside a leather file case, deputies find a hand-held video camera, about 10 bottles of cough syrup, 13 bottles of prescription pain-killer medications, drug paraphernalia and small amounts of methamphetamines and cocaine.

"That stuff doesn't belong to me," says one of the women to the gloved deputy searching through the contents of her purse.

"But it was in the bag, with your ID in it," replies the deputy.

The two women are arrested amid tears and denials. But a few days later, prosecutors decide not to file a case, saying the minuscule quantity of narcotics did not warrant charges.

Mahoney and her children are walking back to the parking lot four hours after they arrived. Her friend, Amanda, helps as the kids tumble into the car. Mahoney's oldest is Ranyanee, a handsome, energetic 9-year-old. Ronald, asleep in the car seat, is 6 months old. His father was in jail when he was born.

"It was a nice visit," she says. Her only complaint is about the wait.

"We waited 45 minutes for the bus. They could do better over there," she says, shaking her head slowly.

When her husband gets out, Mahoney says, she is going to make sure he gets a job, probably with her stepfather, who owns the apartment building she lives in.

"I like coming to visit him, but it's a lot of hurt to deal with," she says. "We're used to it. It hurts, but we block it out."

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