LIMA, Ohio – The convicts stand in a circle, three fingers pointed skyward, nine faces set in stone, their deep, male voices raised in slow recitation:
"On my honor, I will try,
"To serve God and my country,
"To help people at all times,
"And to live by the Girl Scout Law."
At their sides stand their daughters, their small fingers also raised in the salute of the Girl Scouts club. This is the regular monthly meeting of Troop 884 — not in a school, not in a church, but at the Allen Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison rising from the rolling farmlands of northwestern Ohio.
Lugging boxes filled with sandwiches, Hawaiian Punch, potato chips and sashes bearing merit badges, the girls file into a linoleum-floored visiting room on Wednesday afternoon. They range in age from 6 to 12; they are in shorts and purple Girl Scout T-shirts, in tennis shoes and ankle socks, their hair bouncing in pony tails, swept back with headbands, tied with sparkling barrettes.
Their dads — most of them imprisoned for drug trafficking, serving sentences ranging from 36 months to 18 years — hang back for a few heartbeats, adjusting to an abrupt shift in reality. They have just been strip-searched before being allowed to change into identical polo shirts and khaki trousers, rewards for good behavior and participating in this program.
Eight-year-old Paige, a precocious child with crooked teeth and chin-length brown hair, gathers the ends of her big T-shirt, trying to tie a knot so it hangs just so on her tiny waist. Her dad, Ben, who just turned 27 while serving a five-year sentence for selling drugs, appears baffled by how to solve his little girl's fashion dilemma.
He tentatively puts an arm around her shoulders, as if afraid he might break her, and lowers his blue eyes to her hazel ones. "Hi," he says.
And so the meeting begins.
It takes about 30 minutes and copious amounts of sandwiches and chips and bright pink drinks for dads and daughters to catch up and settle in. Then there are cake and cookies and games and merit badge work and projects designed to help parent and child — the latest is a lesson in how to open a small business. Many nail and hair salons are planned.
The meetings last about two hours, give or take the time it takes to herd a giggling gaggle of girls, running high on refined sugar, out the door. The fathers put on brave faces that drop like rain the minute their daughters leave.
This Daddies and Daughters chapter is a pilot, part of the Girl Scouts' Beyond Bars program, a 14-year-old effort funded by the Justice Department. It is the only one that unites fathers and daughters. Every other troop — about 40 across the country — brings mothers and daughters together.
The goal is to establish a relationship between parent and child, in some cases where none existed. Each group is taught how to understand the other. Parents learn how to lead by example, how to set goals and how to simply spend time with their children. The girls learn how to deal with the burden of having a parent in prison, how to respect themselves, how to be a responsible kid. Having fun is part of the plan.
The troop plays charades using a boxed set of cards, a game that delights the girls and makes shy men out of convicted felons. "Daddy," Paige says, "I want you to buy this for me when you get out."
It is, without doubt, a surreal slice of life. Grown men who've spent much of their lives living on the wrong side of the law are singing Girl Scout songs, sewing and making purses. Little girls who've just come from school are sitting inside an all-male prison, ringed by five vertical rows of concertina wire.
Yet here they are, each one struggling to condense a month of news, hopes and thoughts into two hours. Briefly, they know the comfort of a father's touch and the warmth of a daughter's embrace.
Six-year-old Lazaria will be a grown woman when her father is released after serving 18 years; she is an intelligent, gregarious little girl who smiles and twirls so her sequined, orange dirndl skirt flies around her knees. But when a prison door clangs shut behind her, locking her in, she freezes. Her eyes fill with tears and she clings to the legs of her troop leader. It takes a few minutes of soft words and gentle prying to unclench her fingers and persuade her to keep walking.
"Come on, Lazaria, it's OK," the girls murmur.
Dwayne, 36, is serving three years for drug possession. His daughter, 5-year-old Autumn, is a Daisy scout and the youngest troop member. She's gone to visit relatives on vacation and is not here today. Dwayne looks forlorn, alone at a table of chattering girls and their fathers.
But he smiles when he talks about activities at the meetings. "I like the sewing part," he says, and the other cons nod in agreement and grin sheepishly. "I look forward to it."
He has not told his daughter why he is in prison. "I just told her I was going to college." But Autumn doesn't miss much, even at age 5.
"Every time she walks out that door, she turns to me and says "Call me. We'll talk later."' And Dwayne convulses in laughter. "Like she the parent. Like she the one paying the bills."
Dwayne once served seven years for armed robbery. He has five children by five different women, none of them his wife. His oldest daughter no longer speaks to him.
"She's angry," he says. "I haven't been around much. I tried to give them material things, no matter what it cost. They didn't care about that. If I had given them more of my time, I wouldn't be here."
But here he is, in prison, four days before Father's Day, amid other fathers and daughters who are planning small businesses.
They compile two lists: There are "Needs," the things that must be seen to first, like clothes, electricity, a place to live. And then there are "Wants."
Ben has written a wish list including a cottage, a speed boat, and a new wardrobe. His daughter's desires run from toys to clothes.
Last on the list? "Dad to come home."
"I couldn't think of anything else," Paige says, and dissolves into giggles.
Her father laughs, too. "Thanks a lot, kid," he says.