Warren Harris didn’t recognize his daughter.
Six years ago, he said, she was knee-high, with barrettes and bows bouncing in her hair. But the teenager who walked through the door had grown six inches and didn’t need a barrette to hold back her long wavy hair.
“She was a little girl,” he said. “Now she’s a woman.”
Wednesday morning was the first time Warnisha Davis, 16, had seen her father since 2009. Harris, 31, recently transferred from Liberty Correction Institute in Bristol, Florida, to Everglades Re-Entry Center to finish a 13-year prison sentence for armed burglary.
Before she arrived, Davis was afraid she had forgotten what her father looked like, she said. But when she saw him, she wasn’t afraid anymore.
“I cried,” she said. “But it’s wonderful.”
Warnisha had come to visit her father as part of an event organized by Children of Inmates, a statewide service designed to help the children of inmates reconnect with their parents. The program arranged for 15 inmates at Everglades Re-Entry Center, 1599 SW 187th Ave., to spend three hours on Wednesday with their children.
“Kids don’t know who to be mad at — the parents, the system — because they miss their parent,” said Shellie Solomon, the program director. “And sometimes the best person to explain is that parent.”
Though the program has coordinated more than 260 visits to 14 facilities since its creation in 2007, Solomon said, this was the first time they visited this particular prison. She said the visit is often the first time in months, and sometimes years, that incarcerated parents see their children.
The visits to the prison are made every three months, with a civic lesson Solomon “quietly slipped in” each time. This month’s theme was patriotic, pegged to the Fourth of July.
The trips are funded mostly by the Department of Children and Families, Children’s Trust of Miami-Dade and the Florida Department of Corrections.
Though some were too young to understand what was going on, many of the 45 children knew exactly what was about to happen before they boarded the bus to leave at Trinity Church in Miami Gardens.
Kenneisha Gilbert, 7, had been asking every day for a month when she was going to see her granddaddy. It had been almost six months since she had last seen Eric Marshall, and she couldn’t wait to tell him about how the Tooth Fairy had brought her five dollars for her teeth.
“I miss him,” she said. “I’m gonna hug him and I’m gonna tell him I love him.”
It would also be the first time her 1-year-old half-sister, Ariana, would meet her grandfather.
“I want them to already have that connection,” said Nicole Lively, 43, who took her grandchildren to the prison. “When he comes home, he won’t be a stranger.”
Marshall, who will go home next year after serving 16 years for robbery, said he was nervous that Ariana wouldn’t like him.
“But when she took to me, the nerves just went away,” he said, with his arms curled around her. “It felt good.”
Frank Acosta, a warden at the institution, said that after the inmates saw their children, they generally behaved better.
“It’s very emotional,” he said. “Like the human being, the father that I am, I understand that it’s emotional to be separated from your children. They know they have something to look forward to, somebody to go home to. It’s real motivating.”
Glimpses of barbed wire fences through the window blinds and the matching blue uniforms were the only indication that the festivities taking place were being held at a prison. The fathers ate hot dogs, hamburgers and watermelon slices with their children as they laughed, hugged and played with toys provided with the organizations.
In accordance with the patriotic theme, families also folded American flags together and played with American flag fans.
“It’s exciting, joyful, and at the end, hurtful,” said Demetrius Edwards, 28, who is serving a 10-year sentence for several charges, including robbery with a firearm. “They gotta go, and I’m not allowed to go with them.”
Just after 2 p.m., families got their two-minute hug warning.
Kids were hoisted into the air one last time while moms and girlfriends got one last hug and kiss. They snapped family pictures in front of a beach sunset mural; pictures the inmates will soon pay $2 to tuck away into photo albums and folders.
But then it was good-bye.
The children were given stuffed animals and taken to an arcade to help cope with the potential trauma of leaving their parent behind.
As the inmates watched their children walk out the door, clutching the toys they had picked out together, they blew kisses and wiped away a stray tear.
Harris hugged his daughter tightly, vowing to embrace this moment and the moments to come after he left prison.
He then joined the line of blue shirts back into the prison, turning to wave one more time.