CUMBERLAND, Md. – They were unlikely dance partners in an unlikely dance hall: a 29-year-old murderer and a 10-year-old boy doing an impromptu tango as Luther Vandross’ “Dance with My Father” sounded from a boom box in a prison gym.
It was one of the lighter moments at the emotional end of a weeklong summer camp where inmate dads and their children reconnected after years apart. Seven fathers — all in prison-issued jeans and blue, short-sleeved shirts — swayed to the song with their children, some openly crying.
The Hope House Father to Child Summer Camp Behind Bars recently held at the prison offered them a hint of what life together could have been like.
Federal and state prisons in Ohio, North Carolina and Maryland have hosted this summer camp for 10 years, but the program at the North Branch Correctional Institution in July was the first in a maximum-security facility.
It’s a reward program for inmates — many of whom will spend the majority of their lives in jail. More importantly, it’s a program for the children, organizers said.
“Every child needs to know the love of their parents,” said Hope House Director Carol Fennelly. “In a true and perfect world, fathers would be mentors to their own children — that’s what we try to create. It’s a safe place where these kids can love their fathers without feeling ashamed.”
Hope House, a Washington-based nonprofit group, organizes these camps and other programs to strengthen the bond between children and their imprisoned fathers. Throughout the year, they facilitate face-to-face video calls between the fathers and their families hours apart from each other. They also record inmates reading books aloud and then mail those audio tapes to the kids. Another program called Girl Scouts Beyond Bars offers similar opportunities for daughters to communicate with their imprisoned mothers.
Spending a few hours each morning inside the prison gym with their children, the inmates at North Branch tried to make up time for missed birthday parties, summer trips not taken, their absence during pickup basketball games.
“This is will be the only reference point some of these guys will ever have to their kids,” said Geray Williams, 32, one of the seven dads chosen to attend the camp inside North Branch. “Just spending time with them is all that matters.”
In 2008 the Department of Justice estimated that more than half of all inmates were parents. That leaves 1.7 million children nationwide — about one in 50 U.S. residents under 18 — with a parent in jail.
Organizers say the main goal of programs like the Hope House camp are meant to keep such children from making the same kinds of mistakes their parents did.
The Hope House camp is free for the participating families. At North Branch, the inmates and their kids spent several hours together each morning. They painted life-size murals depicting a perfect day outside prison. One family painted themselves skateboarding on a half-pipe; another rode atop an elephant in Africa. The kids even got a taste, or a distaste, they said, for prison lunches — eating hot dogs and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches made by inmates working in the prison kitchen.
Every afternoon, when the fathers returned to their prison cells, the children and Hope House counselors retreated to a local campground, where they built campfires, made s’mores and stargazed at night. Many of the children said they preferred the mornings in prison, though, because they got to spend them with their dads.
There are benefits for the criminal justice system, too.
“I’ve seen hardened criminals transformed in front of the children,” said Frank Bishop, chief of security at North Branch.
Inmates who have committed sex crimes or crimes against children, and inmates on death row are ineligible to apply for the Hope House camp. Inmates are required to demonstrate good behavior during the previous year and to complete a parenting class. They also move into a housing unit with other dads in the program.
The Hope House camp offered a chance for them to reconnect with their children, but it was also a break from the monotony of a life behind bars. Inmate Williams had not tasted greasy delivery pizza in 10 years before Hope House ordered it for the special lunch on the last day of camp. He smiled, sandwiched between his children, Summer Harris, 13, and Sanchez Harris, 12. It felt like heaven, he said, though it wasn’t clear whether he meant the pizza or being with his kids for the first time in six years.
Thirty of North Branch’s 1,470 inmates applied for the five-day program. Some applicants didn’t satisfy all criteria to attend; others had children who were unwilling to participate.
Sanchez and Summer traveled more than four hours from Lynchburg, Va., to attend the camp with their father, who is serving time for armed robbery and first-degree assault and expects to be released next year. Sanchez acknowledged in a journal entry that the first day of camp at the prison was scary, but he quickly warmed to his dad.
They sat together holding hands and hugging on the final day. In a closing recital, the children sang to the group, “It doesn’t matter what you did. I only see you as my daddy.”
“My heart fluttered when I saw them,” Williams said, tears streaming down his cheeks during the song. “It was surreal.”
Each child will be invited to participate in camp next summer as long as their fathers remain eligible. In the meantime, they have returned home and the majority will not see their dads for a year.