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Photo by Peter Idowu on Unsplash

She rises joyfully 
On to her tippy toes
In small black and white Keds
Barely tall enough 
To peer curiously over the guard counter
As she is being checked in for her visit.

Little pink tutu of stiff organza
Filled with dreams and sparklies
Black leggings and hoodie
Long dark hair to her waist
Eyes of wonder, a heart that pirouettes
Even here. 

In the worn-out bathroom
Where women escape to cry and chat,
Cleaned half-heartedly by inmates
Who have such a privilege,
This mother combs out her baby ballerina’s hair,
Adjusts her princess dress
And explains,
“You want to look pretty for your father.”

Your father who cannot hold you
Your father who cannot touch you
Your father who cannot tuck you in at night
Nor be the proud dad
At your ballet recitals.

However: Your clothes are pretty,
And regulation!
They will not set off
The metal detector
As you dance through
So small and innocent

On your way to see Papá
Waiting anxiously
In his tiny metal cage behind glass,
On the telephone,
So happy to see his family,
To know he is still loved, and loveable,
Even in solitary confinement. 

Dance niñita, dance,
And never stop dancing.
Never stop believing
That your father will come home to you.

This is what love looks like.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

R. Keppler is a journalist whose husband is incarcerated in California. She has been an advocate for over 10 years, including as chair of Inmate Family Councils and as a member of several grassroots justice reform groups. Keppler's poetry was an outgrowth of noncontact visits at Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit (SHU). She asks that her real name be withheld.