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A happy man hugs his smiling young daughter.
Illustration by Teresa Tauchi (Original photo by Milkos on Depositphotos)

As I walked into a contact visit on a Sunday morning, my 8-year-old daughter’s face lit up with joy. As always, I had so much I wanted to say to her, but once we sat down, my mind went blank. “I love you” were the only words I could muster. 

Nothing gives me more joy than listening to her talk about her life. 

“It’s like watching a female version of you at that age,” my mother liked to say.

My daughter takes after me. She doesn’t really like school but is aware she’s good at it and loves the challenge. Like me, her favorite subject is math. She wants to be the president of the United States when she grows up. 

I try to get her interested in sports, but she’s a girly girl and never lets me forget — she always wants to get her hair and nails done. She is also into dolls and loves to tell me about her Bratz doll collection. Whenever she asks me for money, you can bet it’s for a Bratz doll if it’s not for electronics.

“More money, more dolls” is my saying for her.

These brief moments of communication are highlights of our lives. In a sense, it confirms the theory that pleasure never lasts long; as soon as we attempt to get a conversation going, an hour has already passed without us even realizing it. We get so caught up in each other that we sometimes forget we’re on the clock. If we only had more time.

We have a ritual that we do. As soon as the five-minute warning about the end of visitation is announced over the intercom, we hug tightly for the remaining time to say how much we miss and love each other. 

On this particular morning, I started early to express my deepest love to this little girl who resembles me more than anyone I know.  

“Do you know how much I love you?” I asked her. 

“Wait, Daddy,” she responded. “Not yet. Don’t say it yet. They didn’t say five minutes left. We still have time.” 

Spending only an hour and 15 minutes with me twice a month has become the norm for her. That does not sit well with me. 

I was only 2 years old when my father was arrested and permanently removed from my life. I was 11 when he died in prison.

I can recall visiting him when I was a kid. Things were much different back then. A father could actually interact with his child to establish a bond. During visits with my father at East Jersey State Prison, we had the option to be indoors or outdoors. We would either throw a football around, wrestle in the grass or play one-on-one basketball.

The scarcity of our time together allowed the streets to muffle out any influence he tried to have through weekly phone calls and occasional visitations. Guns, drugs, prostitution, poverty and the allure of making a quick dollar overrode any potential positive advice my father could have given me. 

As I grew older, I got deeper into street life. I focused more on living up to his reputation than I did on running away from it. He never had enough time with me to tell me that the street life was not the life he wanted for me.

If only we had more time together. These 90-minute visits and 15-minute phone calls are not enough for a father to properly guide his child. 

Sadly, the cycle of incarcerating young African-American men is a harsh reality. Maybe if we had more time with our children we could break that cycle.

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.

Juan Ibn-Don Mumit Turner is a writer incarcerated in New Jersey.