Inmate Ernest Williams, serving a 41-month drug sentence, had long stopped asking his family — a wife and five children — to come see him at the Federal Detention Center Miami. The visits, he says, left him too chastened and hurt, a stark reminder of his loss of freedom.
So when a staffer told him about the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ plan to host a first-ever dance allowing inmates to spend an afternoon with their daughters, Williams said no, instead returning to the predictable routine of his kitchen detail.
Weeks later, Williams says, he had a dream while sleeping in his cell, an unclouded vision of him dancing with his three daughters. The next day, he said yes.
On Tuesday, Williams moved beyond all the emptiness and guilt, trading a khaki jumpsuit for a light gray suit, lavender print tie and black shoes — and danced with his 9-year-old twin girls and 13-year-old daughter for a few precious moments at the detention center, a high-rise administrative facility on Northeast Fourth Street. “I haven’t seen my girls in months, I could not believe how much they have grown,” said Williams, 37, convicted of intent to sell crack cocaine. “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 bureau hosted its inaugural Daddy-Daughter dance to create an enduring memory, one that can carry inmates to the outside world with a different perspective and offer daughters the hope that there will be more such moments. It is part of the bureau’s broader reentry program to reach out to the children and families of offenders and strengthen their bonds, critical for transitioning back home. “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, who had assembled to meet their fathers, all minimum-security, nonviolent offenders.
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, this long-held tradition unfolding without the harshness of uniforms and visiting rooms and prison walls. They danced. They swayed. They held tight. They laughed. They cried. And these fathers who have been gone for years remembered the chapters they had missed: birthdays, holidays, first tooth, first crush, first heartbreak.
Some of the girls are so young, they only know a father confined; others are 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 cargo theft and is scheduled to enter a halfway house 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, inside the waiting room on the first floor of FDC Miami, a co-ed facility where about 1,200 inmates serve time or are being held before trial. But today was different. They arrived with their mothers and grandmothers wearing fancy dresses, the littlest ones in pastel gowns and patent leather shoes. One little girl wore her hair in braids made pretty with blue beads that matched her shoes. Williams’ identical twins wore matching black-and-white striped dresses and held hands while they waited.
“I wanted to dress up to look pretty for my daddy,” said Rangel’s 15-year-old daughter. Her 13-year-old sister: “I wanted to make him feel special.”
With all the ruffles and lace and bows, it felt like Easter. Still, there were reminders that this is a federal prison.
Each of the girls walked through metal doors removing her shoes and jewelry and belts to go through a body scanner, arms raised. Later, they were escorted to the third-floor, multi-purpose room, decorated with purple ribbons, glitter paper chandeliers and a big cardboard cut-out carriage — the handmade gifts of a group of female inmates. In total, the dance cost $600 — including a meal of sandwiches, chicken, fruit and cake — paid for through an inmate trust fund at no cost to taxpayers.
Just after 1:30 p.m., the sound of trumpets filled the room, signaling the arrival of 20 princesses. The first inmate — for today, referred to as “Sir” Anthony Martin — walked to the entrance of the carriage with a pink rose. He handed the flower to his 4-year-old, the youngest daughter at the dance, as she beamed in a blush-hued gown with white leotards and ballet slippers.
One by one, each man greeted his daughter and escorted her to a seat as the song You Are So Beautiful played. They had all been convicted of something, but for a Tuesday afternoon, they were just fathers spending time with their own.
The program was attended by national law enforcement officials — including the BOP director, Samuels, Assistant Attorney General for Justice Programs Karol Mason, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida Wifredo Ferrer and Warden William T. Taylor.
The fathers and daughters mingled until Luther Vandross’ ballad, Dance With My Father, began to play. The fathers escorted their daughters to the floor where they danced and hugged and wiped away the tears of their girls — and their own. Then the fathers performed a choreographed dance for their daughters to the Temptations’ My Girl.
The dance, and the emotions it triggered, might have seemed incongruous in a place meant to house and rehabilitate prisoners. But there are possibilities in a father’s love, as one of the program speakers put it. “Offenders with hope and aspirations are offenders with drive and purpose are ultimately law abiding citizens,” said Eric O. Young, national president of the Council of Prison Locals.
The dance was born in a conversation between Samuels and Young a few months ago as they discussed ways to fortify inmates before they leave the system. Returning to a strong, engaged family gives inmates their best shot at starting over. The bureau, which confines more than 213,000 inmates across the country, is looking to replicate the dance in other locations.
For its debut, Miami made sense. It is the home base of Young, the staff was supportive and the BOP executives were already meeting in the city this week. In 2013, a city jail in Richmond, Virginia, held a similar father-daughter dance, believed to be the first in the country.
At the Miami center, inmates are housed in 8-by-10 cells three floors above the dance in a unit called BRAVO. Most of the fathers who participated are serving time for drug offenses and white-collar crimes such as bank, wire and mail fraud. They are all within a few years of release and can receive family and friend visits several times a week. They are also allowed daily emails and 300 minutes a month of phone time.
The dance theme: There’s Still Time at the Ball. Translation: There is still time to be a better father.
“You hope this will be transformational, that this dance gives these fathers something to look forward to,” said Walter T. Richardson, the Miami-Dade Police Department chaplain who delivered the keynote address. “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 and just before lock down, Anthony Martin, 33, a father of two young girls, sits quietly. One of his daughters is crying, head in her hands.
“She misses me and I love her so much,” he says, comforting the 8-year-old. “I was so glad to be able to interact with my girls in a different way.”
Their mother, Patrice Jones, 32, wanted them to see their father in a different setting.
“He talks to them most every day and he sees them weekly, but I wanted them to see him in normal clothing, in a normal way," Jones says. “They were so excited. They have been counting down the days.”
Martin is serving a 70-month sentence for cocaine trafficking.
“I missed my youngest daughter learning to talk. I missed the ‘terrible twos.’ I missed the first day of school,” he says. “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.”