“People may think it’s crazy to have this in a jail,” says Woody, 67, a veteran homicide detective. “But it builds respect. You wouldn’t believe what it does for these men’s confidence to dress them up. So this dance can have a ripple effect.”
The idea was born when a girl said she felt left out because her father was locked up, said Angela Patton, head of Camp Diva, a Richmond nonprofit that works to empower African American girls.
“We thought, ‘These girls need their fathers, too,’ ” said Patton, who hopes to replicate the dance in the Washington area. “But we also thought, ‘Let’s not just throw the girls and the dads together in the jail. Let’s prepare everyone. This is not just some dance that’s about punch and cookies.’ ”
It’s the day before the dance, and a group of inmates in the G-2 cell block — many of whom are attending — sit on plastic chairs for a fatherhood class. The class is part of a program for inmates who want to change negative social behaviors and recover from substance abuse. As they gather, guards with guns and walkie-talkies circulate through the halls.
“Waking up in this bleak place is depressing as hell. But it’s only temporary. Remind yourself, you are just passing through,” one poster reads. Also on the walls are the Serenity Prayer, Martin Luther King Jr’s, “I have a dream” speech and warnings against excessive cursing and use of “the N-word.”
Only some of the inmates will be allowed to attend the dance. It’s open only to nonviolent offenders; interested fathers are interviewed by a jail deputy and have their criminal histories reviewed. They must also get permission from the child’s mother.
When the class begins, the men fall silent.
“How many of you are fathers?” asks Brian Gullins, a coordinator with the Richmond Family and Fatherhood Initiative.
Nearly every hand goes up in the room.
“What are your top three emotions about your own father?,” he asks.
A man stands up and says his name is Tony.
“Hey Tony,” the men say in thunderous unison.
“My emotion for my father is anger. He committed infidelity and left us behind. That’s when me and my brother got into the streets, took up drugs. My brother got killed. I am here. Thanks for letting me share.”
“Thanks for your share, Tony” they boom again in one voice.
Some of the other men stand up to speak.
“My dad was chaotic.”
“My dad was an alcoholic.”
“My dad beat on my mother.”
And after a few more, Gullins poses another question:
“If we asked your child to talk about you, what would that say?,” Gullins asks. Some of the men stare at the ground, others shake their heads and sigh.
“If it’s painful, then own it, brothers,” Gullins tells them.