The four women spent the day and half the night frying fish and steak, barbecuing ribs and chicken, cooking chili and lima beans with neck bones, baking pies, cakes and corn bread, and preparing gallons of cole slaw and potato salad. They bought Doritos and potato chips and candy and cheese doodles.

They have stuffed it all into three big coolers and two shopping bags, and at 2 a.m. are there waiting, in a dark and deserted street in Northeast Washington. The bus isn't due for another hour, but the Bailey family isn't taking any chance of missing it.

The charter to Youngstown, Ohio, will take the Baileys farther than they have ever traveled from the District, to visit a man they haven't seen for six years. Robert Bailey, along with 1,400 other District sons, fathers and brothers, is incarcerated in Youngstown, nearly 300 miles from home.

"I haven't been able to eat, to sleep," says Pearl Bailey, Robert's sister. "What's he going to look like? We never thought we'd have the opportunity to go see him."

But officials at the prison, run by Corrections Corp. of America, have arranged a reward for 250 men in a rehabilitation program -- families can bring a home-cooked meal and spend the day in the prison gym. They can touch and hug. First Deanwood Baptist Church has paid for the bus.

Other passengers begin arriving: grandmothers, little girls in patent leather Mary Janes, preteens in jeans, women in their Sunday best.

Thelma Johnson, 76, boards in anticipation of seeing the grandson she raised. Elainie DuBoise brings her two sons to see the father of one of them -- 6-year-old Toney. "My daddy," Toney says, "is going to hug me."

Only one man is among the 54 passengers; he's visiting his brother. Other groups have subsidized another bus, and some families are finding their own way. But only four of 250 fathers will show up on this special day.

Passengers pull out blankets or cover up with coats and settle in for what's left of the night as the bus moves through the dark.

By dawn, Robert's mother, 50-year-old Diania Bailey, can hardly sit still.

"I didn't realize how much I missed him until I got the chance to see him," she says.

Entrepreneurs have put together regular van services between the District and the prison, but most charge about $75.

"It don't sound like a lot, but when you are trying to just keep your head above water, it's hard to find that extra," Bailey says.

Yes, she knows six years is a long time. But she was forced by illness to quit her cleaning and home health aide jobs and lives on a disability check. There are a lot of things you don't do, she says, when life is a struggle. She pushed her son to the back of her mind; that doesn't mean she doesn't love him.

"Even though they are bad," she says, "they are still our children, no matter what."

Security at the prison has been increased since an escape in July. Double rows of chain-link fence surround the two-story prison, with its narrow slits for windows. The fence is layered top and bottom with thick coils of razor wire, the "concertina" kind that would fold around and shred anyone who tried to get through.

"This gives me the creeps. It's one of the reasons I can't come here," says Afiya Graham, who has brought her nieces to see their dad.

A uniformed guard in black boots comes outside the gates with a leashed dog. The food is taken inside for examination. While they wait, the families snap pictures of each other as they stand next to the bus, smiling. Individual shots. Group shots. The kind people take next to buses chartered to Disneyland.

They pass through the gate toward metal detectors in single file. A little boy approaches with his hands clasped behind his head, elbows out, in a classic arrest pose. Little girls waiting their turns partner for clapping games.

The gate closes on the first group. Graham puts her hand to her heart.

"I hate the sound of the click going in," she says.

"I hate the click when I have to leave," says Jeannette Goins, who is visiting her son.

Inside, the group walks down long prison hallways with concrete floors painted white and polished until they gleam. In a courtyard, they pass Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. (D-Ohio), in a blue leisure suit. He and former D.C. Council member John Ray, now a lobbyist representing CCA, say hello to passing families before rushing off to a meeting with local officials about expanding this prison by 500 beds and building two more.

Visitors are released a few at a time into the gym, where the prisoners wait.

"John Faucett, you have a visitor," a prisoner with a microphone announces.

"Robert Bailey, you have a visitor."

Pearl and her sister run and leap at their brother, hanging from his neck, their feet dangling in the air. His mother runs, too, and collides with them, nearly toppling the pack. His aunt crushes in, and all five stagger backward but hold tight.

They stroke his head and they laugh and they cry.

The names of 112 men eventually are called. Gary Day, 32, one of the 138 men without visitors on this first annual Family Day, stands near the entrance and watches. His eyes are haunted, not hopeful.

"I don't have no one to hug me, to be happy to see me," he says. "My mother when I came here wouldn't accept my collect calls. Now I write, I get no response. I don't know if she's dead or alive."

Is there no one else to reach to find out about his mother? "My two brothers are locked up," he says. "Another one is on the street. I don't even want to talk about him."

Might his mother be angry with him for getting himself in prison on robbery and cocaine charges?

"I've been locked up three years -- she must be over it by now," Day says. His face takes on the pouting, hurt look of a child who has been taught that boys don't cry. He watches as another family reunites and makes a single, final comment.

"I want my mom."

Robert Bailey catches up on family news, they eat. And eat.

"This is a little bit compared to what I intended," Robert's mom says of the mounds of food she's brought. "I took out of the freezer pulled pork, and pigs feet to fix with pig tails and pig ears. But my daughter said, `Oh, Mom, that's so country. It will embarrass us.' "

Robert Bailey, 32, is tall and handsome. He has a shy smile and a charming, gentle way about him, and in 1993, he shot and permanently paralyzed a guy he'd known since childhood.

Robert was first put in jail in 1988 on a drug distribution charge. He got out in 1991 and by the following year was using drugs again.

In 1993, on Benning Road, he was coming off a high when he started arguing with a man he says had stolen drugs from him. He remembers pointing the gun, he knows he shot the man, but he says he doesn't remember firing. He's not surprised he hasn't gotten a reply to letters of apology. He was sentenced to 12 to life.

His sister Pearl says that, in way, it's fortunate that Robert went to prison; otherwise, he might be dead. "If he were still on the streets," she added, "he would never have gotten his GED. Now he's an educated man. When he comes out, he can do anything."

Robert has been waking up at night for the last two weeks, worrying his family wouldn't come. Now he worries about what he sees.

"When I left, my aunt had a few strands of gray hair. Now she has a full head of gray. My mom was healthy; now she limps. It makes me mad that my selfish ways mean I'm not with them."

He says he "got a different attitude when I was shipped up here. . . . I was far away from my family. Something had to give." So he entered the prison's drug rehab and behavior modification program. "I realized I had to start being a man instead of projecting being a man," he says.

He doesn't resent his family for not writing or visiting. Literacy problems, he says, makes writing for some of his family an ordeal. His sister Angulic Luckett says she's not comfortable with her punctuation and grammar. She dropped out of Kramer Junior High at age 16.

"We're all going through our own stuff, and everything we have to write is bad, so we don't write at all," adds Pearl, a driver for a catering firm. She and her two children share a home with Angulic and her three children, who are on welfare.

Robert doesn't make collect phone calls from the prison, he says, because he knows they are expensive. But the lack of communication creates doubts about whether they care. "Today's visit," he says, "tells me I'm not all alone."

Some of the men without visitors latch on to other men's families. The Baileys invite three to join them: an old neighbor, Robert's cellmate and one of only two white prisoners. Other men drift over and are offered food.

Jeffrey Leslie, the white man, asks if he can have seconds.

"You a friend of my son," Diania says. "You're part of the family."

Isaac Gause insists it's fine with him his family didn't come -- in fact, it's better this way: "You don't have to worry about them having a flat tire, or an oil gasket dripping, or them spinning off the road."

Gause, in and out of prison since age 13, can remember only one special meal with his family -- and that wasn't even really with them. It was a Thanksgiving. He was on the lam from a halfway house when he showed up at his mother's door. His mother, worried police might have followed, fixed him a paper plate of turkey and all the fixings and wrapped it in foil. He ran with it, out the back door.

Today, dozens of men without visitors sit together in groups, but it is as if each is alone.

"It's like showing up in casual wear at a black-tie party," Tony Staton says. "We feel uncouth."

Emmanuel Ministries in Canfield, Ohio -- anticipating some men would get no visitors -- has prepared a feast for them.

Some of the men swarm Johnson, the 76-year-old grandmother, a retired Pentagon secretary. She, after all, has three kinds of greens -- collard, mustard and kale -- to say nothing of shrimp, steak, chicken, sweet potato pie. The feast and the day remind her grandson, Eric Mitchell, of what he is missing.

"Locked away a long time, you get kind of numb," Mitchell says. "To laugh, to eat -- it's more than a gift. It's a blessing, because it's spiritual."

Mitchell, 35, went to prison the first time after arguing with a convenience store owner who had cut off his credit. The owner saw that Mitchell had a gun and told him and his friends to take what they wanted. They took beer. Mitchell's armed robbery conviction landed him in prison for five years.

Seven months after getting out, he had an alcohol and drug relapse. Caught holding cocaine on Christmas, he was sentenced to one to three years. He should have had a parole hearing in August, but the board is backed up.

He says he kicks himself every day for being so stupid and leaving his grandmother in the lurch: "It's my turn to give back, but I don't have much to give because of the decisions I made."

He and his grandma are best friends, he says. He watches the same soap operas she does so they can talk about them: "As the World Turns," "The Young and the Restless," "The Bold and the Beautiful," "The Guiding Light." When he hears about an elderly person dying, he thinks of her, and cries.

On a makeshift stage up front, the prison band plays. Prisoners put on a skit to show how their group meetings are conducted. Isaiah Broggins Sr. is surprised when his daughter, Ikisha Payne, joins him on stage.

The 9-year-old whispers that she wants to sing. She announces to the crowd that she has a song she wants to dedicate to her daddy. Then she belts out "I Believe I Can Fly."

Ikisha's life changed dramatically when her father, a salesman, began drinking and using drugs. Theirs was a stable, working-class family, but Broggins says he felt pressured by the payments due on a new town house and discouraged in his quest to find the father he hasn't seen since he was 4. He got caught, he says, with drugs.

"And what else?" prompts his wife, Valerie Payne, eager for full contrition.

"I was asleep in the car, drunk, with drugs," he says.

She has made her point.

Seven hours after the reunion begins, it is over. Men from one cellblock at a time are told to say goodbye and line up while their families stay seated. Broggins turns to his wife for long kisses. Ikisha hangs off his back, her head against his.

The men without visitors line up quickly.

"Let our families know we miss them, we love them, we want to hear from them," Victor Belt tells a reporter.

The Baileys hug about a dozen guys who've attached themselves to the family over the course of the day. Robert seems calm.

But in the lineup, he begins to sob. His body crumples and he collapses to the floor. Several other prisoners pick him up and lead him away.

The families will wait more than an hour to leave while prison officials do a bed check to make sure no prisoner is posing as family. It is dark when they finally walk through the gates and onto the idling bus.

They slump exhausted in their seats. The visit is over, the long trip home just beginning.