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At "Day with Dad" prison event, leaping hugs and difficult discussions

Dads in a maximum-security lockup in Brazoria County hold on to hope by holding on to their kids.

John Green reunites with his son in the middle of the Darrington Unit gym at the start of the Day with Dad program, Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016. Children and the 29 participating inmates ran into each other's arms to kick off the day of activities.

BRAZORIA COUNTY – Terry Solley was 14 when his father handed him a pistol and started taking him along on robberies.

On a recent Saturday morning more than 25 years later, Solley, 41, sat in a gymnasium at a maximum-security prison contemplating how he was going to explain everything to his 12-year-old daughter, Brittney, who was less than an hour away from greeting him.

"Now she's at that age where she can fully grasp everything," said Solley, who's serving a 35-year sentence for a bank robbery he committed with his father.

Brittney and 47 other kids with fathers in prison traveled to the Darrington Unit, in Brazoria County, earlier this month for its once-a-year "Day with Dad" program organized by The Heart of Texas Foundation, a Christian non-profit. The event is one of dozens of such programs that have spread across the state over the last decade, giving incarcerated parents a full day of activities to interact with their children. The one at Darrington Unit featured basketball games, dance, prayer, sermons, Bible study and a balloon release. 

As their children slowly gathered on the other side of the gym, the 29 reserved men instantly transformed into 29 gleaming dads. For some of the fathers, this may be their only chance to see their children all year.

As Kool & the Gang's "Celebration" boomed from a speaker, things quickly picked up. An announcer called forward each child one by one to greet his or her father in the middle of the gym. Their flailing, speeding little bodies were often no match for their targets, knocking their dads over as supporters cheered them on.

"You finally get to see him," Brittney said, struggling to find the right words. "How you feel is unexplainable."

Each reunion was a joyous occasion for both parents and children, but the ordeal of traveling to a maximum-security prison for the visit made the moment more nuanced.

In order to participate in the daylong event, the dads can't have significant marks on their disciplinary records. Once they clear that hurdle, they prep for their children by taking parenting classes hosted by volunteers, writing their kids letters and assembling gift bags to take home.

"We know that the children of incarcerated parents, they're at a high risk for becoming involved later in life in the criminal justice system," said Jason Clark, spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. "So for us it's incredibly important to try and break that cycle and keep the kids from following in their parents' footsteps."

 The annual gathering offers an unvarnished look at how convictions complicate fatherhood. For one, it's given Solley – who first went to prison at 18 – time to think.

"My father left a legacy to me of crime and violence. I want to show her that there is a different way of life than my father left me," said Solley, who has turned to religion and co-authored a Christian devotional book from behind bars. "I figured out the key to doing time: I had to accept Jesus Christ, and once I did that, everything else felt like a drop in a bucket."

The shared activities and Bible-inspired messages of forgiveness and redemption put forth by the event's organizers has been therapeutic, Solley said.

"Despite where her father is, it's still daddy, still proud of her, still love her," said Solley, who is eligible for parole in 2023. "And despite where I am, there's God in me."

While the fathers share the responsibility of making sense of their criminal histories to their children, they also have to battle some of the same issues all parents deal with.

"Her mom wants me to talk to her about boys. She's starting to get interested in boys," Al Thompson, 51, said about his daughter Madison, 12. "I'm really not sure what I'm going to say."

Somewhere in that conversation, Thompson, who is serving a 40-year sentence for a bank robbery, also wanted to impart to Madison, "that every decision matters, and the choices she makes won't just affect her. It'll affect everyone she cares about."

Yet Madison, who will be 27 when her father is eligible for parole in 2031, said her father's conviction has been a blessing in disguise.

"It's sad, but it's also a good thing because it's helped him get better, and we communicate more when he's in here than when he was out," she said. "I know a lot more about him now. I don't know how to explain, but I'm glad it happened."

Inmates Bennie Alexander, 53, and Ronald Hamilton, 42, want their children to know that they are loved, something they said they didn't feel for themselves or from others until after they entered the system.

Alexander said everyone "washed their hands" of him following his robbery conviction. "I was a good kid all the way up to 9 or 10 years old," he said.

He said his life took a turn after his mother and stepfather separated and divorced, but he blames his criminal background on himself.

"I was the one who at 10 joined a gang, drinking, drugs, sex at a young age. That was my life. That's what I flourished in," said Alexander, who became a teen father a few years later.

Now, with a clearer mind thanks in part to getting sober, Alexander said he finally loves himself.

"[I hope] they feel my love for them and that they know that I'm daddy, but I'm not the same daddy," he said. "Daddy's better today than he was yesterday."

Arreon, Alexander's 15-year-old daughter, said she wants to build a relationship with her father but wrestles with explaining to people where he is.

"It was sad because I hadn't seen him in so long," she said of their emotional reunion. "When I see him, makes me wanna cry."

Hamilton, serving 60 years for aggravated assault and robbery, said he was conceived through a sexual assault and never felt love from anyone until the sentencing phase of his trial. 

"When I showed up to court, I had 25 people there that I didn't know loved me," he said. "I couldn't do anything but cry."

Growing up, his family didn't talk about how he came into the world, and the word "love" was not something anyone said to him. He said he wants his 13-year-old daughter, Joné, to know exactly how he feels about her.

"I grew up in it. I grew up angry," said Hamilton, who is eligible for parole in 2036. "It was me and my mother. As I got older, it was just me. I grew up in an environment that didn't communicate love. That's why I tell her all the time – I'm writing half a paragraph, and in that half paragraph, I'll say 'I love you' three times. I don't want her to look for that elsewhere."

Offering her father a doting smile, Joné said she understands.

"I feel that he tries to show me," she said. "He says 'I love you. I want you to know that.'"

Joné suddenly grabbed her dad's face: "I appreciate that, and I know you do."

Hours after their reunion in the middle of the gym, Hamilton couldn't stop thinking about seeing his daughter again.

"The specialness of it is captured because it's your child running to you," he said. "I'm running to her, but she's thinking she's running to me. I'm trying to get back to her."

That sentiment is a common theme at "Day with Dad" programs, according to Pastor Tracy Baskin, who leads the committee that organizes the program at the Darrington Unit.

"You can make a mistake," Baskin said, "but there's an opportunity to be restored."

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