It’s a Saturday morning in March, and Alexis Atkins isn't on the soccer field or watching cartoons or doing any of the other things 9-year-old girls typically do on weekends. Instead, she's sitting in a sterile and windowless visiting room at the Richmond City Jail in Richmond, Va., waiting to see her dad.
Alexis leans forward to survey the cramped room. Eleven other girls in frilly dresses and ringlets sit on the same row of plastic bucket chairs, also waiting to see their dads.
Today is a special day not just for Alexis and the girls sitting next to her, but also for the Richmond City Jail. In fact, it’s a remarkable day in the history of corrections in America. Alexis and the other girls are here for a daddy-daughter dance, the first of its kind in a U.S. jail.
Alexis yanks at the waistband of her black tights and re-adjusts the bodice of her sparkly fuchsia dress. She’s only a fourth grader, but she has all the swagger of a tough urban teenager. Still, today is important to her. Her dad has been away for five long months, and she wants to look nice for him.
She turns to the girl sitting beside her, a shy 11-year-old named Shania. “When’s the last time you saw your dad?” Alexis asks.
“A year maybe,” Shania shrugs. “I don’t know if I remember what he looks like anymore.”
Alexis nods sympathetically. "I hope my dad remembers me."
Incarcerated and absent
Alexis is one of an estimated 2.7 million American children with a parent behind bars, a demographic that faces significant challenges, according to statistics from the Pew Research Center.
Forty percent of children with incarcerated parents experience problems with emotional health, such as nightmares, anxiety and depression. Family income drops by an average of 22 percent. These kids often exhibit unusual levels of social and physical aggression. In fact, 23 percent are expelled from school, compared to just 4 percent of children overall.
A parent's incarceration also impacts a child's academic performance. On average, children of inmates have lower attention spans, which can contribute to their difficulty adjusting to and staying in school. Given the higher incarceration rates for black men, this is a significant factor in the achievement gap between black and white students, says University of Wisconsin sociologist Anna Haskins.
But the news isn’t all bad for kids like Alexis and Shania. Research also shows that improving the father-child relationship while the parent is behind bars can actually reduce some of the risks these children face. The tricky part is finding ways to do it, especially if the only way children can interact with an incarcerated parent is through a thick sheet of bullet-proof glass.
That's why Angela Patton, a longtime advocate for vulnerable girls in Richmond, decided to hold the jailhouse dance. For six years, she'd been organizing an annual daddy-daughter dance at the downtown Hyatt for at-risk girls. She saw it as a way for young women to "invite their fathers into their lives." Last year, Patton found out some girls who wanted to participate couldn’t because fathers were behind bars.
“Why can’t we just have a dance at the jail?” Patton recalls one of the girls asking. At first, Patton thought it was crazy. “Who in their right mind is going to allow a bunch of little girls, dressed up, to come inside a jail so they can dance with their daddies?” she remembers thinking.
“These guys are locked up, but we shouldn't lock them out of the daughters' lives," Patton said. “Their daughters need them.”
To her surprise, Sheriff C.T. Woody, who oversees the jail, loved the idea. For years, he'd been trying to find ways to promote positive relationships between inmates and their families back home, which is why he allows contact visits (meaning hugs are permitted) for well-behaved prisoners and their families on Father’s Day.
Woody immediately saw the potential of the dance. It would mean a lot to the girls, and it would be good for the men, too.
After what seems like an eternity for Alexis, Sheriff Woody escorts the girls past three sets of iron bars, through a long corridor and down a flight of concrete stairs. The fathers are waiting in the basement, in a gray multipurpose room. They’ve traded in their blue-and-yellow jumpsuits for freshly pressed button-up shirts and polished shoes.
"Daddy! I've been waiting such a long time to see you," squeals 6-year-old Jhaniyika Morman as she jumps into her father Andre's arms. Across the room, Shania gives her father a shy side-hug. He chokes back tears.
Alexis peers through the hoard of fathers, daughters and jail staff but can't see her dad. Has she forgotten what he looks like? Did her dad forget about the dance? Has he forgotten what she looks like?
Just then, Joey pushes his way through the crowd. “Dad!” Alexis wails. She wraps her arms around his hulking frame. Tears stream down both their cheeks. “I love you baby,” Joey whispers in Alexis's ear. He remembered.
Making up for lost time
The reunited father-daughter pairs settle in at round tables covered with purple tablecloths to enjoy a meal of fried chicken and rice before the dance starts. Andre Morman serves Jhaniyika a heaping plate of food and reminds her to say “please” and “thank you” to the food service workers. This is an opportunity to parent his daughter in a way he hasn’t been able to do during his nine months in jail. Jhaniyika looks adoringly at her father.
Across the room, Joey pulls out a chair for Alexis before taking his own seat. He listens intently while she catches him up on school and her social life. But some of what she says troubles him. “Alexis is hanging out with an older girl,” he says when his daughter gets up for cake. That worries him, he says. “I just want her to stay away from boys, and stay in school … not make the same mistakes I did.”
Volunteers circulate the room, encouraging the father-daughter pairs to use the miniature video cameras on their tables to interview each other. As a conversation starter, volunteers remind the girls of the questions they discussed on the bus ride to the jail that morning. Everyone is awkward at first, but the girls soon work up courage to ask their fathers the questions that weigh most heavily on their hearts.
“Will you take me to Chuck E Cheese?” 6-year-old Tatyana asks her father earnestly. He can't help but laugh, before promising it will be the first thing they do when he gets home. “And we will eat pizza?” she continues, eyebrows raised. “Of course,” he assures her, still chuckling.
Across the room, 11-year-old Shaughni fidgets with her bolero, bursting with anticipation to ask her question. “When you get old and you can’t take care of yourself,” she whispers, “who do you want to take care of you?”
Her father, Marvin, doesn't hesitate: “You,” he answers, smiling gently.
Her face lights up and her eyes sparkle. “I thought that is what you wanted,” she tells him, proud to be her father’s first choice. “I’ll take real good care of you,” she assures him.
“Do you miss me?” Marvin asks.
“We don’t laugh as much when you aren’t there,” she tells him. “I miss your funny faces."
Joey Atkins and Andre Morman ask similar questions, repeating the query in different ways to reassure themselves their daughters still need them.
Alexis and Joey hit the dance floor as soon as the music begins. Oblivious to everyone around them, they throw themselves into dancing. The afternoon reaches a high point when the music for “The Wobble," a popular hip-hop line dance, begins to play. Alexis and Joey lead out with infectious enthusiasm. Soon the more bashful father-daughter pairs join in.
Eventually, the music fades out and it's time for the girls and their dads to say goodbye. Alexis tries hard not to cry, but she can't stop herself, and neither can her dad. She wants him to keep a picture she drew for him during dinner. “I can’t take it back with me baby,” he says. “Why? Why?” Alexis asks, confused by the jail’s rules. Finally, a guard gently pulls her through the door, and back toward the lobby.
As they walk back through the long corridor, Alexis attempts to regain her composure. By the time she walks into the lobby where her mother waits, she's stopped crying. She rubs the tear stains from her cheeks and tries to regain the tough exterior she came in with.
"Did you have a good time?" her mom asks.
Alexis did, but she has a question.
"When can we come back to see dad?" she asks.