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Life Inside

My First Father-Daughter Dance Was in the Prison Gym

“She saw a glimpse of me and what our life could be if I was free.”

Editor’s note: This week, The Marshall Project is publishing a series of essays and interviews about fatherhood and incarceration. Read the first installment.

Last October, I got to spend a full day with my daughter. She’s 9 years old, and for her entire life I’ve been incarcerated.

It’s hard for her mother and I to know what to tell her. When she was younger, she thought I lived in a hotel. Now she knows I live in a prison, where I have lived for the past 30 years. When I was just 16, I was sentenced to life without parole. I have no out date. But thanks to a special program, several other incarcerated parents and I got to spend the day playing games with our kids outside of the walls—and rules—of the prison visiting room.

On the first day, the program volunteers taught us about fatherhood while we made gifts for our children. We were given a plain wooden picture frame to decorate and give to our kids the next day. I carefully selected my daughter's favorite colored stones, cartoon characters, glitter hearts and stickers that resembled her dogs and cats. We also got to choose five gifts to put inside a backpack. I selected a kit to build “Max the dog,” a Trolls bath bomb, stickers, a 3-D coloring book of dogs and cats and a bucket of sidewalk chalk in assorted colors.

The night before my daughter’s visit, I spent hours writing her a letter, ironing my clothes and hand washing my shoes. The next morning, I woke up at 4:30 a.m. My mind was racing as I tried not to forget everything I wanted to tell her that day.

I knew there would be no do over; no second chance to make a first impression. We would be together for seven hours. It would be the first time we spent together apart from her mother and outside of the prison visiting room.

In the morning, the other fathers and I gathered with the program volunteers and ate breakfast. We were each given green T-shirts to wear instead of the blue state-issued shirts we normally wear.

Once the kids arrived, a volunteer called each father’s name over the loudspeaker in the gym. When I heard my name called, I ran to meet my daughter in the middle of the gym.

Visiting room rules prohibit prisoners from holding children after age 2. For several years, I have not been able to hold my daughter. But on that day, visiting room rules didn’t apply. For a split second, I was worried she would think I didn’t want to pick her up or that I couldn’t lift her anymore because she had grown older. So when she ran to meet me in the center of the gym, I immediately wrapped my arms around her, picked her up and held her in the air.

“I love you,” I said as tears ran down my face. “I am very happy to see you!”

“I love you, and I am happy to see you too, Daddy,” she replied. “You can still pick me up!”

As I held my daughter, she took one of her small hands and began waving it through my hair.

"Gel, huh?” she asked.

I nodded and laughed. "So much for waking up early and working hard to look good for photos today," I thought to myself.

The first round of activities included fathers and their children participating in various games. We were divided into four teams to compete against each other. My daughter had never seen me run or dribble a basketball, and we were both amazed watching each other run through the gym as the ball bounced up and down under our hands. Over the course of the day, we danced in a Soul Train line, ate lunch together and posed for photos. Each activity was a first for us.

During the father-daughter dance I apologized to my daughter for not being able to make her first two dances in first and second grade, and for having to ask one of my brothers to take her instead. I promised her that when I got released, I would never miss any of her dances.

She started to cry. She told me she couldn’t wait for me take her to soccer games and spend time with her and our family.

"I wish Mom was here with us to see all this," she said.

A volunteer handed us some tissues. For the second time that day my daughter saw me cry, another thing she has never seen me do before.

"Daddy, you are really emotional," she observed. I told her that my tears were tears of joy.

The highlight of the day was giving my daughter “a father’s blessing.” Each father was instructed to tell their child: I love you. I am so proud of you. You are a wonderful son/daughter. I am so glad you are my child.

Before giving my daughter her blessing, I squatted down so we could see eye to eye. I told her how smart, beautiful and brave she is and listed a number of specific reasons why I am proud of her. I wanted to be specific so she could realize how much I pay attention to her life and remember the details. I also wanted the blessing to be unique, so she knew it was personal.

She smiled, thanked me, hugged me and gave me a kiss.

Next, we gave our kids the gifts we made. I removed each gift from the backpack for my daughter, one by one, as I told her why I specifically chose each gift. She beamed with joy.

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"Daddy!” she exclaimed. “I'm going to save this backpack and these gifts forever so I never forget this day."

I’ve never seen her so excited before. It felt good to physically give her gifts that I picked out. This was another first for us, because prisoners are prohibited from giving or receiving gifts in the visiting room. Gift giving is considered smuggling and can result in a permanent visitor restriction.

When it was time for the kids to leave, I helped my daughter into her pink fleece jacket. Another first. Even though it was a small gesture, it was one among a series of memories I wanted to remain in my daughter's mind.

It had never dawned on me that the only things my daughter has ever seen me do is walk a few steps, stand and sit during our visits. Throughout the day together, through all our interactions and bonding moments, I was becoming a real, whole person to her.

I gathered all my daughter's gifts, her letter, certificate, lamp, and workbook and carefully packed her backpack to capacity. Once we were done, we went outside where volunteers gave us helium balloons. We walked a short distance away from the building and gathered in a large grassy area of the prison. Two large fences laced with razor wire separated us from the parking lot where her mother waited to pick her up.

"Children, if you know your father loves you release your balloons," said a volunteer.

My daughter and all the other children let the balloons fly.

"All the fathers who love their children release your balloons," she said next.

As all the fathers released their balloons, I picked up my daughter and we watched the sea of balloons being slowly carried off by the gentle fall breeze. I hugged and kissed my daughter as we said goodbye. We both told each other how wonderful our day was together.

Despite all the limitations of parenting from prison, and despite my physical absence, I do my best to stay involved in my daughter's life. I call my wife daily, and I speak to my daughter nearly every time I call if she isn’t busy with homework. I also write her letters and send her greeting cards. My wife brings my daughter to visit as often as she can. When we visit we play board games, read books, and talk as much as we can.

But the camp gave me an even deeper appreciation for fatherhood. Before spending a day with my daughter, I didn’t realize the impact it would have on her to do simple things with me like run, make crafts or cheer her on during competitions. In many ways, the camp allowed my daughter to see me as a fully functional father. That day, she saw a glimpse of me and what our life could be like together if I was a free person.

For the first time ever, I was not just a man saying things fathers do.

Efrén Paredes Jr., 46, is incarcerated at Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater, Michigan. At 15, he was arrested, and at 16, he was convicted of first-degree murder, felony murder and armed robbery, and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.