By Miami Herald, adapted by Newsela staff
MIAMI — Ernest Williams, in prison on a 41-month drug sentence, had long stopped asking his family to comehim at the Federal Detention Center Miami. The visits, he said, left him too sad and hurt, and reminded him of his lost freedom.
On a recent Tuesday, though, Williams traded his khaki prison jumpsuit for a light gray suit, lavender print tie and black shoes. For a few precious moments, he danced with his 9-year-old twin girls and 13-year-old daughter.
In a Federal Bureau of Prisons first, inmates serving time in the Miami prison were allowed to dance with their daughters for a single afternoon. The Daddy-Daughter Dance theme was “There’s Still Time at the Ball,” reminding inmates that they can still be better fathers.
A Lasting Memory
“I haven’t seen my girls in months, I could not believe how much they have grown,” said Williams, 37, who is in jail on drug charges. “I was so happy to see them but so sad that I will not be able to leave with them. I am here instead of being outside with my family because of the choices I made.”
The prison system hosted its first Daddy-Daughter Dance to create a lasting memory for the fathers and offer their daughters the hope that there will be many more good moments. It was part of a program to reach out to families of prisoners and strengthen their relationships. Former prisoners with strong and loving families are better able to avoid committing crimes and going back to jail.
“You are a key to the success of your father,” Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Charles E. Samuels Jr. told the 20 girls, aged 4 to 18.
In a third-floor prison meeting space transformed into a ballroom with a fairy-tale theme, 13 fathers in suits and ties and tuxedos spent two hours with their girls. They danced and hugged, laughed and cried. These fathers who have been in jail for years remembered the chapters of their daughters’ lives they had missed — birthdays, holidays, first tooth, first crush, first heartbreak.
Fancy Dresses And Pastel Gowns
Some of the girls are so young, they only know a father in prison. Others were old enough to remember what life was like when their father was home.
“I haven’t been there for so many special moments,” said inmate Michael Rangel, 40, his eyes welling up. The father of three daughters has been in prison almost three years for theft and is supposed to leave prison in January. “I talk to them and email them all the time, but it’s not the same as being there.”
Most of the girls had been here before to visit their fathers, but today was different. They arrived in fancy dresses, the littlest ones wearing pastel gowns and patent leather shoes.
“I wanted to dress up to look pretty for my daddy,” said Rangel’s 15-year-old daughter. Her 13-year-old sister said, “I wanted to make him feel special.”
Still, no one could forget that the dance was held in a federal prison.
The girls walked through metal doors to get into the prison and each one had to remove her shoes, jewelry and belts to go through a body scanner. Later, they were escorted to the party room. It was decorated with purple ribbons, glitter paper chandeliers and a big cardboard cutout carriage — the handmade gifts of a group of female inmates.
Fathers With Their Girls
Just after 1:30 p.m., the sound of trumpets filled the party room, signaling the arrival of the 20 girls.
One by one, each man greeted his daughter and escorted her to a seat as the song “You Are So Beautiful” played. All the men had all been convicted of something, but for an afternoon they were just fathers spending time with their girls.
The dance came out of a conversation about ways to strengthen inmates before they leave the system. Returning to a strong, engaged family gives them their best shot at starting over. The bureau, which is responsible for more than 213,000 inmates across the country, is looking to hold similar dances in other locations.
Most of the fathers are serving time for drug offenses and non-violent crimes, such as fraud, and are all within a few years of release.
“Their Daughters Are Their Future”
“You hope this will be transformational, that this dances gives these fathers something to look forward to,” said Walter T. Richardson, the Miami-Dade Police Department chaplain. “We want the focus not so much on what happened, what brought them here, but what kind of future they can have. Their daughters are their future.”
An hour after the dance, Anthony Martin, 33, a father of two young girls, sat quietly. One of his daughters was crying, head in her hands.
“She misses me and I love her so much,” he said, comforting the 8-year-old. “I was so glad to be able to interact with my girls in a different way.”
He added, “I missed my youngest daughter learning to talk. I missed the ‘terrible twos.’ I missed the first day of school.” Martin is serving a 70-month sentence for cocaine trafficking. “And then something like this happens where you see them all dressed up and looking so pretty. It just makes you want to do the right thing.”