Dancing in Jail

Restoring Prisoners and Their Families

For a group of teenage girls in Virginia, it was a dream come true: their daddies asked them to dance. I’ll explain next, on BreakPoint.


Eric Metaxas

When a man is sentenced to prison, he is not the only person in his family doing time. If we believe that fathers matter, it’s difficult to deny that his children are also serving a sentence of sorts.

But, as a heart-warming story illustrates, locked up doesn’t have to mean locked out.

That is how a remarkable woman named Angela Patton put it on a recent edition of the TED Radio Hour. Patton is the CEO of “Girls for a Change” in Richmond, Virginia. The organization works with girls between the age of 11 and 17, helping them to develop the skills necessary to lead successful lives and have a positive impact on their communities.

As part of this program, Patton and company hold an annual father-daughter dance. A few years ago, during the planning for the dance, one of the girls said that her father couldn’t attend because he was in jail. After bouncing some ideas off each other, one of the girls asked, “Why don’t we hold the dance in jail?”

Of course, some of the girls thought that was impossible. But Patton’s response was, “We’ll never know unless we ask.” So the girls wrote a letter to Richmond Sheriff C. T. Woody, who welcomed the chance to allow inmates to remain connected with their families.

Thus, as Patton put it, the inmates traded in their jumpsuits for shirts and ties, and an annual tradition was born. At the first dinner, the inmates enjoyed a catered meal with their daughters. Then they did the thing that most fathers take for granted: They served their daughters’ food, pulled out their chairs and asked them to dance.

As Patton said, even “the guards cried.” Actually, the guards did more than that; they joined inmates in line dances. For a while, everyone forgot that they were inside a jail.

But inevitably, the dance ended and reality sank in. After the girls left, one inmate asked the others to stand in a circle, telling them that he “needed a moment.” He then told them that they had just watched their precious daughters walk out for a second time on account of bad choices the dads had made. He said that it was his goal to never let that happen again so that he could take his daughter to the dance and, more importantly, take her home afterwards.

Since that first dance, there have been two more, and Patton tells anyone who will listen that “locked up doesn’t mean locked out.” It is possible for men behind bars to have relationships with their children that will benefit both.

Prison Fellowship certainly thinks so. Maintaining that connection is the goal of programs like Angel Tree. But it isn’t only Angel Tree; restoration is at the heart of Prison Fellowship’s mission.

In fact, it’s at the heart of the Gospel. Think about the leper who told Jesus, “If you will it, you can make me whole.” After healing him, Jesus told him to present himself to the priest.

Why? So that the priest could declare him “clean” and restore him to his community. So he could live as a whole man and not as an outcast.

The Church’s mission is to restore outcasts to their communities as whole men. Some outcasts, like lepers and men in jumpsuits, are easily identifiable. Others, like the rest of us, are not. But to all of us, Jesus’ message is the same: “I will it. Be made whole.”

Come to BreakPoint.org and click on this commentary and I’ll link you to Angela Patton’s story. And while you’re there, learn more about the ministry—and the volunteer opportunities at Prison Fellowship.

Further Reading and Information

Dancing in Jail: Restoring Prisoners and Their Families
Click here for information on the Girls for a Change Father-Daughter Dance. Check out the Fatherhood Initiative–a Christian ministry to dads who are in prison or being released–and click here for details about volunteer opportunities with Prison Fellowship.


“A Father-Daugher Dance—in Prison?”
Angela Patton | TED Radio Hour, NPR | April 25, 2014

Corrections Fatherhood Programs
National Fatherhood Initiative website

Prison Fellowship

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