So he listens intensely when he hears a prose-poem delivered to the class by Richmond activist and hip-hop artist Joe’i Chancellor. Her father went to jail when she was nine. He didn’t come home until she was 21, she tells them.
“Father Father Father where have you been?/ Jail, dead, on drugs, or the street life is that where you went? / Did your choices lead you to leave me?”
Her hoarse voice rises, like a preaching poet’s. Then she screams and weeps some of the final lines:
“I know after hearing my poem you feel messed up and you should / But I understand now you were misunderstood/ You too was misled you was raised by the hood / Was a fatherless child because your father was no good.”
Watching as some of the inmates choke back tears, Sheriff Woody rushes to the front of the room.
“Let it go through you, brothers,” Woody says. “Let yourself just feel it.”
‘I’m gonna see Daddy’
It’s the morning of the dance so Jhaniyika’s mother is getting her ready at home, as her five siblings — four boys and one sister — watch enviously.
Her mother helps her put on her white tights and silver Mary Janes along with a necklace of plastic dress-up pearls.
“I’m gonna see Daddy. I’m gonna hug Daddy,” she says, twirling around the living room.
Her sister Avianiea, just a year older, is quiet.
She stares at SpongeBob on TV. She starts to cry.
“They said we could only bring one daughter,” says her mother Jennifer Morman, who chose Jhaniyika because she cries the most for her father whenever they visit.
“She really hates talking to him through that glass,” says Jennifer, who wears her husband’s wedding ring around her neck since inmates are not allowed to wear jewelry.
Does she think the dance will help?
“I think it will stay with him,” Jennifer says.
He’s been behind bars for the last nine months, this time for failing to pay child support for a 15-year-old daughter from another relationship. He gets out in 88 days. He has nine children total and says he just doesn’t have the money.
Back at the jail, he’s trying to find a belt that will fit. He’s lost 40 pounds since getting locked up.
“I just gotta break this cycle I’m in. I’m just tired of it,” Andre Morman says, adding that he can’t wait to see his youngest daughter. “I haven’t been able to pick her up in nine months.”
At around 1:30 p.m. the girls are taken down a long hallway to meet their fathers. But instead of waiting they all rush to one another. This time, the fathers don’t bother choking back tears. They just let themselves cry.
“Is jail over yet, Daddy?” calls out Jhaniyika, who runs into her father’s arms.
He couldn’t answer yes. So he just hugged her tightly.
A photo in a paper frame to keep
“Introducing, Joey Atkins and his daughter Alexis,” the event’s master of ceremonies booms as the pair walks a red — paper — carpet.
They have their photos taken in the multipurpose room, which has been decorated with purple paper tablecloths and balloons. The event begins with a journaling exercise where the fathers and daughters write notes to each other.
“I am having fun. It’s gonna be hard to leave,” Alexis writes.
There’s a chicken dinner and a sugary cake. Celebrity guest Chad Coleman, a Richmond native who grew up in the foster care system and later became famous for playing reformed ex-convict Cutty in “The Wire,” comes forward to praise the event.
Everyone is on their best behavior. The fathers pull out their daughters’ chairs and rise when their daughters come back to their seats after being away, manners they learned in their fathering class. Some huddle and share family and schools news. One daughter charms her dad into promising she can have a summer pass to Kings Dominion.
But then “The Wobble” comes on and that gets everyone moving and laughing — for a few minutes, the event turns into a silly, sloppy dance party. “Dad!” Alexis laughs, like any daughter embarrassed by seeing her father busting loose. And then she joins in, jumping forward, leaning to the right and waving her hands in the air.
But when it’s time to leave, even the jail guards, some crying, say they feel the ache. The inmates and their daughters all get their photographs in paper frames to keep.
Joey and his daughter Alexis hug and cry for what seems like a very long time.
“It’s gonna be okay,” he whispers into her ear. “They can’t hold me forever, Boo.”
Andre hugs Jhaniyika, tells her to be good to her mother and her siblings for him. She keeps looking back as she leaves, a tiny figure stumbling in her shiny Mary Janes.
Outside the room, she spots him through the glass and starts pounding on it, yelling over and over, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!”