National Edition

Jailhouse Rock: Community fosters relationships between daughters and their incarcerated fathers

Published: Saturday, May 25 2013 1:00 a.m. MDT

Andre Morman and his 6-year-old daughter Jhaniyika get reacquainted.

Elizabeth M. Stuart

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.”

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