An inmate needs a copy of his birth certificate. Another hasn't been able to reach his attorney for weeks.
Those are the simple problems, the ones that volunteer Willie Doggett handles every day with hardly a second thought.
And then there are others, the appeals that stick with Doggett and other volunteers at the Visitors'Service Center, which for decades has tended to needs of D.C. jail inmates.
Like the man who was afraid he wouldn't be welcomed home when he was released and wanted someone to contact his family beforehand. Or the lovestruck prisoner who wanted to marry his girlfriend and asked someone from the Service Center to relay the proposal.
Or the husband who was locked up and asked Doggett to call his wife to see how she was coping with a recent miscarriage.
That was a tough one for Doggett, 37, a prim, soft-spoken man who is an ex-con himself. It had to be right on the first try. "I wanted to be able to relay the message to her in the proper way," he said. "Like I was a minister."
In a city where many families have known the anxiety and upheaval of having a loved one locked up, keeping an inmate's life from unraveling is not an isolated or inconsequential undertaking.
And for nearly 40 years, inmates and their families have been turning to the Visitors' Service Center for help, looking to the nonprofit group's volunteers and staff for the sort of assistance that jail personnel are often too overburdened to provide. A little thing like tracking down a phone number, for example, can allow a woman to call her boss and maybe save her job during a brief stay in jail.
With an annual budget of less than $200,000, the center manages to handle 15,000 requests a year.
Many people spend only weeks or months in the D.C. jail. Some have been convicted of minor crimes. Others couldn't afford their bond, and others were held without bond because of the severity of the crime they were charged with. But sooner or later, nearly all of them will return to their old neighborhoods, said Betty Gatewood, who is the center's program coordinator and oversees the work of the volunteers.
Gatewood says the volunteers believe their work can make that transition easier for the inmates and, ultimately, more beneficial for the community.
"If we can, for lack of a better word, touch someone that's in the jail, hopefully that will teach him as an individual to feel like a part of the community and to be a more productive person," Gatewood said.
Recording the voice of a father as he reads a bedtime story so the tape can be delivered to his children is one of the ways Gatewood and longtime volunteer Mary Elizabeth Pate try to strengthen those family and community connections.
"In many families, I think it's very helpful," said Pate, a retired teacher and social worker. "It may not strengthen quite as much as we hope, but every little thing we do [helps]."
In a city where so many people are in need and where crime has been such a scourge on many of them, catering to the concerns of criminals and accused criminals can often seem like a thankless task.
"It's not easy to raise money for the jail," said Ann Keep, the executive director of the nonprofit organization since 1976. Not even the little bit the center requires; the organization's annual budget of $175,000 is minuscule compared with that of other programs.
But like indigents' defense or drug treatment, the programs at the Visitors' Service Center are not, at first blush, the sort of work that opens a lot of hearts or wallets, and raising money for them takes a nuanced approach.
Fundraisers who tout the organization's work too enthusiastically attract the attention of those who scoff at spending taxpayer money on such endeavors. But promote it too modestly, and you risk losing what little there is.
On roughly the salary of D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, the center pays its three full-time staff members and two part-timers, as well as the organization's other operating costs, such as the paper for inmate request forms. The center also relies on the work of about 18 volunteers.
Other costs are absorbed by the employees themselves. Bill Chandler uses his own car to drive to the police stations to collect the possessions inmates often leave behind when they are arrested. Chandler used to be reimbursed for his gas, but the center can't afford that anymore.
A three-story rowhouse in the 1400 block of Massachusetts Avenue in Southeast is the center's home and the organization's biggest asset. Purchased in the early 1970s by the center's founders for about $23,000, it was paid off in the mid-1990s. It sits about a half-mile from the jail.
For everything else, the money comes from the government, from organizations such as the United Planning Organization and the United Way, and from contributions from local law firms and foundations, and every last dollar goes out just about as quickly as it comes in.
"We're just barely making it," Keep said.
But judges, wardens and other participants in the criminal justice system understand the value of the Visitors' Service Center, just as they appreciate the importance of a skilled public defender service or adequately funded addiction programs. Just last month, the Council for Court Excellence, which monitors the criminal justice system in the District, saluted Keep and the center for its contribution to the community.
And every day brings her evidence of just how needed the center is, she said. "We have a lot of people who are counting on us."
Many of the 1,000 or so requests the center gets each month are submitted in writing on the forms the center drops off at the jail. Others are delivered in person during staff and volunteer visits to the jail or by telephone, from the inmates themselves or their families.
They are often the everyday needs of people whose lives have been upended by a bad decision and ensuing encounter with the police.
One man needed his dentures retrieved after he was arrested without them. Another had left behind his eyeglasses and couldn't see.
And this year alone, about 100 inmates sought the help of Visitors' Service Center in tracking down their W-2s and filing their income tax returns.
Haywood Ballard, 54, was one of the inmates aided with his tax returns. Convicted of domestic violence, he is awaiting transfer to a federal prison, where he will finish out his 30-month sentence, he said in a brief telephone interview set up by the center. Ensuring that his affairs were in order was important to him and would have been impossible without help, he said. "I'd be lost if I didn't have Visitors' Service Center."
Since the cap on the jail's population was lifted three years ago, the number of inmates has ballooned by nearly 50 percent, to just under 2,400, according to the D.C. Department of Corrections, and that has meant a lot more work for the Visitors' Service Center.
Jail social workers, who are supposed to provide some of the same sort of assistance as the Visitors' Service Center, are overloaded. Each of them averages a caseload of 120 inmates, which is 20 more than recommended by national guidelines, a senior jail official said.
"Sometimes the case manager is overwhelmed," said Patricia Temoney-Salmon, the jail's deputy warden for programs. "The Visitors' Service Center is there as a third arm, another ear, an extension of a shoulder."
It is not a new issue. It was, in fact, just such a problem that spawned the creation of the Visitors' Service Center in 1969. Ever since, it has served as something of a safety valve for the needs of the inmate population, an outlet for the anxieties of confinement.
It was practically a lifeline for many inmates who were in the jail during a protracted lockdown just before Christmas in 2003. With all visitors, including those from the Visitors' Service Center, barred for days following a shooting inside the jail, many inmates were cut off from their families.
The Visitors' Service Center was inundated with messages that inmates wanted to pass on to loved ones.
"Let her now [sic] how much I really miss my daughter and how I wish I can be there for her first Christmas and first birthday," one man wrote to the center. "Give her a big kiss for me."
Another balanced the sentimental with the practical: "Tell her I love her, Merry Xmas and please send me a money order quick. I'll be locked up for a long time."
In a place that is sometimes violent and often frightening, easing the concerns of the people confined in jail is an important management tool, and the Visitors' Service Center plays an instrumental role in that, another jail official said.
"You never know how important it is for an inmate to know that a child has received a birthday card," said Betty Green, director of the jail's chaplaincy services. "It just does something to boost his or her spirits."
Calvin Richardson, a 50-year-old inmate awaiting transfer to a federal prison, recently turned to the Visitors' Service Center to send such a wish to his 12-year-old daughter. "Tell her that I love her and happy birthday," he said, recalling the message in a telephone interview arranged by the center.
"I'm her daddy," said Richardson, who says he was wrongfully convicted of car theft and bail violations. "And she misses her daddy, and it's important that she receive some birthday wishes from her daddy."