Special Event Reunites Inmates With Their Children

If you walked into the visitation room at the Everglades Correctional Institution and had no idea what was going on, the hugs, kisses, tears and abundance of kids would be big clues.

Wednesday was the day for which many of the inmates and their children had been waiting. Some of them for years. 

"A little emotional right now. I’m trying to hold it together. It’s a wonderful feeling, wonderful feeling," said inmate Aaron Campbell as he hugged his three daughters.

A non-profit organization called the Children of Inmates program arranges reunions in prisons all over Florida.

Inmate Warren Harris hadn't seen his daughter in years, and waited anxiously for her to show up, "It's been a long time, she's grown up now, she's a teenager. She was six-years-old when I left the street."

Suddenly a lanky teenage girl came walking toward him. Harris hesitated, unsure if that was his own flesh and blood, but then he and the girl simultaneously reached out and hugged tightly. The tears were years in the making. 

"It was just overwhelming," said Warnisha Davis, Harris' daughter, who is now 16. "I haven't seen him in a long time. I had a feeling I was gonna cry. I was just so happy."

According to the Department of Corrections, research shows children of inmates who see their parents regularly, regardless of what offense their dad or mom committed, fare better than children of inmates who don't interact with their parents.

These are kids at-risk of following in their parents' footsteps, said Sam Ludington of Children of Inmates, which is why bonding events like this are so important.

"Research indicates that children with an incarcerated parent are twice as likely to exhibit anti-social behavior and three times more likely to develop mental illness than kids who don't have a parent in prison," said Ludington. 

This event was set up to resemble a Fourth of July picnic. The kids and their dads had flags, every dad picked out a toy for their kids, and for a few hours, they could almost forget they were still behind barbed wire fences and locked-down doors.

Jean Ramirez was laughing and playing with his young daughter, "Yeah, it feels good. She still remembers me so that’s a good thing."

These reunions are a good thing, said the warden, for the children and for the morale of their dads. 

"It gives them hope that they know they're gonna get out and when they do get out, they're gonna have somebody to go to," said Frank Acosta, Warden of Everglades Correctional. 

It's clearly not just a feel-good exercise. The Department of Corrections said family reunification is a huge factor in keeping inmates out of trouble once they leave prison.  

"They understand that as a parent, their decisions have impacts not just on them but on their children," Ludington said. 

All of the inmates in the visitation room on this day will one day be free again, with a second chance of being dads for the long haul.

It's an opportunity the warden and everyone at Children of Inmates hopes they seize. Embracing the responsibilities of fatherhood could be their tickets to staying out of prison for good.

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