A Visit in Prison

Editor’s Note:  For the safety and well-being of the children, certain last names have been omitted in this story.

Inside a gym, “Celebration” is being blasted through speakers. About 50 kids, all different ages, are lined up wearing matching neon green shirts and waiting expectantly. You might think this sounds like a school dance, but it’s actually a special event inside a prison.

On the microphone, the emcee asks, “O.K, who’s here to see Mr. Bailey?” An inmate skips into the room with a big grin on his face and his 11-year-old son runs toward him. The two exchange an elaborate handshake before embracing.

The children here are waiting to see their incarcerated fathers so they can spend the day with them. This is part of a Christian program called “One Day with God” that takes place inside prisons in seven states.  Gary Mayhew is the Michigan state coordinator for Forgiven Ministry, the group that puts it on.

The program was put together because the children are the silent victims when a father gets put in prison.”

No matter how old you are, you always want to have that knowledge that your father or mother both love you,” says Mayhew. “The program was put together because the children are the silent victims when a father gets put in prison.”

WDET reported on the issue of children with incarcerated parents in the related story, “When Parents Go to Prison.”

Video: Children greet their fathers as they arrive at the “One Day with God” event at Cotton Correctional Facility.

The group works with fathers and mothers but on this day inside the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson, Mich., it’s all dads. Before the event kicks off, some 25 of them are waiting in a classroom down the hall from the gym. Richard, in Malcolm X-style glasses, is one of the dads here. He says he’s feeling nervous.

I didn’t think I’d have butterflies because I do occasionally get visits from my kids but this is a whole totally different experience,” says Richard. His 13-year old daughter Sirena and his 15-year-old son Ricky will be visiting him.

WDET/Laura Herberg

The chidren wait for their fathers to arrive while volunteers in blue shirts stand by.

My father passed away when I was 14 years old. I was a straight-A student, star basketball player in Lansing, and after he passed that loss and that gap in my life kind of led me to go to the streets and get influenced by the wrong people. And this is the chain I’m trying to break right now,” he says.

Back in the gym at the arrival ceremony, all the children have greeted their fathers, yet three men are still standing, waiting for their names to be called.

The emcee informs the crowd, “The next three men have children who have not arrived or are not coming. Let’s give them a big hand when they come through.”

Each man is applauded as he walks into the gym. Though their children have not shown up, these men will be allowed to stick around for the festivities with the other families.  

WDET/Laura Herberg

The fathers and their children get cozy while watching a magician perform.

At the end of the day there will be time for the fathers and their children to share what they mean to each other. But first they’ll participate in a series of ice breakers: relay races, crafts, a magic show and dancing.

The men and their children line up to do the Hustle as a dance host walks them through the steps. They’re trying to follow along as best they can, but for many of the men it’s been awhile since they were at a wedding or a family reunion where they line danced.

Some of y’all struggling out here!” the dance host says with a laugh.

After working up an appetite, it’s time for lunch:  hot dogs, potato chips and cake. Tamir, a dad whose smile reveals an out-of-place tooth, is using the time to talk sports with his son. Tamir first spoke to me before the children arrived. I ask if he is willing to tell his son what he confided to me.

WDET/Laura Herberg

Tamir (left) and his son Jamir goof around during the song-and-dance portion of the day.

I will,” he agrees. “I told her that the biggest thing I was nervous about was dancing with you.”

Why?” asks his son Jamir.

Because, one, I didn’t want you to show me up too bad. And two, I… [wanted] to make sure that I [didn’t] look too crazy,” says Tamir.

How’d your dad do?” I ask Jamir, the son.

Good. He did better than me,” he says.

I think he can dance better than he say but I think he’s just a little shy,” says the father. “But it was definitely fun.”

Tamir says they haven’t spent time “like this” together since Jamir was four. That might explain why, during the arrivals, Tamir picked his tall 13-year-old son up by his ankles and threw him over his shoulder as if he were a toddler.

WDET/Laura Herberg

Ricky, Sirena and their father take their turn during the “Soul Train” dance

Richard, the guy who felt butterflies earlier, is eating lunch with his two teens. His son Ricky also has on Malcolm X-style glasses. Ricky says his dad missed a lot while he was growing up. And now, he says, his dad’s absence feels pretty normal.

“It’s just something that I grew up with so I grew around it,” says Ricky. “Half the stuff that usually wouldn’t go to your mom, I’ve gone to my mom for.”

Ricky’s sister Sirena has one phrase she uses a lot when talking about what it’s like having a dad in prison:

It’s hard,” she says. “It’s like hard having one parent in the house.”

Richard has been patiently listening to his children.

Hearing them say that, you know it’s hard because, you don’t really realize how much you’re needed,” he says.

WDET/Laura Herberg

A father and son during the “one-on-one” portion of the day.

I’m proud of them to be so successful at the things they do with my absence.”

Patrick, one of the dads whose kid didn’t show, waves me over. He says he doesn’t know why his son couldn’t make it and that it’s been bitter sweet observing the other families.

It’s a beautiful thing watching them. I don’t feel like, envious or jealous or nothing like that but you know… it’s hard.”

Patrick says he’s been incarcerated for his 13-year-old son’s entire life. They just met for the first time earlier this year, which Patrick says was the best day of his life.

It’s hard to believe because of where I’m at but… that was the best thing that’s ever happened to me was that day, a visit in prison.”

It’s hard to believe because of where I’m at but… that was the best thing that’s ever happened to me was that day, a visit in prison.”

Patrick was convicted of murder in the second degree and is serving a 14-40 year sentence. Tamir was convicted of dealing drugs and possessing a firearm. He’s now serving a 24-46 year sentence.  Richard was convicted of murder and is sentenced to life in prison, though he’s working on an appeal.

WDET/Laura Herberg

At the end of the day, the fathers are encouraged to tell their children what they mean to them.

For some of the families at this event, this will end up being the last day in their lives they get to goof around and bond in this manner. For others, they’ll someday be reunited outside of prison, though by then the men may be old and their children grown. For all the family members here, though, this is one day that will likely stay with them for the rest of their lives.

Read about the issue of children with incarcerated parents in the related WDET story, “When Parents Go to Prison.”

Image credit: WDET/Laura Herberg

This post is a part of Detroit Journalism Cooperative.

The DJC is a partnership of six media outlets focused on telling critical stories of Detroit and creating engagement opportunities on-air, online and in the community. View the partners work at detroitjournalism.org.

Support for this project comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Renaissance Journalism’s Michigan Reporting Initiative and the Ford Foundation.



About the Author

Laura Herberg

Community Reporter

Through sound-rich storytelling, Herberg covers stories about the people inhabiting the metro Detroit region and the issues that affect them. Michigan Associated Press Best Reporter 2018 and 2017.

Follow @HerbergRadio

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