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Life Inside

How I Reconnected with My Estranged Daughter from Prison

One crinkly letter at a time.

This article was published in collaboration with Vice.

My daughter was eight the last time she wrote, and in the envelope was a note from her mother, my ex.

"I'm married again and two dads are too confusing for her right now. You can write me at this P.O. Box, but please don't write her anymore."

I was four years into a 30-year bid, and was being told that I didn’t have a choice — that I must not write my daughter even one more time. I would just be… gone to her. No goodbye. No explanation about Mommy and Daddy's complications. Just silence and a hope that when she could, she might try to find me.

The next time I heard from her, she was two weeks away from turning 18. She wrote me a letter explaining just how traumatic it was for her when I stopped writing — when I vanished — without any warning. "Dear Dan," the letter began. "I don't know if you'll remember me or not, my name's Brooke and I'm your daughter..."

I sat there in the common area of my cell block, surrounded by the many dozens of strangers I lived with every single day, with the distorted voice of the P.A. barely making itself heard over the slap of dominoes on steel tabletops.

Her letter continued: "...Usually letters, you address with some sort of name, something you call the person. Something you've called the person forever. But I haven't known you forever. I've known the You in my mind, but I haven't known you. Dad? Danny? One sounds like too much, the other sounds too informal...I guess I'll just start with...hello.

“I'm on the brink of 18, and for years you have been on my mind every single day — over 2,920 of them (and yes I used a calculator). Each and every day, you were the person on my mind. Each day I wondered if I was still yours. I wrote you so many letters. But I never could mail them. I never knew how you felt, and I was terrified of rejection. I guess a part of me still is..."

Did she really believe I could just… forget her? That she meant so little to a man who cried over her for months? As if I hadn't spent years alone in a cell imagining the life she was leading?

Was she safe?

Was she smart?

Did she have a knack for multiplying fractions?

Did she ever think about me? The man who taught her to tie her shoes and invented the half-birthday, just for her, as an excuse to eat cake in November?

So began our relationship again, one crinkly letter at a time. We got to know each other, even if it wasn’t easy. She was a young woman disrupted by my choices in life, torn up by my being torn from her, and she was brave enough to tell me just how much I sucked at being her dad.

I still pictured her at four years old, peeking out from behind her mom's leg. But in the photographs she sent, she was this grown-up version of a girl with more piercings than I ever had.

After she graduated high school, she started planning a road trip from North Carolina up to Ohio to visit me, to see me for the first time since she was four.

I was so nervous.

I was so far removed from the man-child she called daddy back then, back when I couldn't grow facial hair. I was 17 when she was born; now I’m 40 and tatted out, my arms covered with skulls and warriors, my chest, back, and shoulders scarred with prison ink. The word “hatred" is emblazoned on my neck. All the markings of the inmate I’d become, when I wasn't making decisions to succeed outside these walls but rather to be accepted by the men around me.

The only thing that remained of the person I was before was my need to be a dad.

I remember everything about that morning of her visit. Adjusting my pants and trying to get my shirt just right. A deep breath before entering the visiting room. Families filling neat rows of maroon chairs. Kids playing in their special area, designated by colorful carpet. The smell of microwaved vending-machine food, energy drinks, perfume.

I searched the crowded room, my eyes crossing unfamiliar face after unfamiliar face. All of a sudden, there they were: the eyes I remembered. And then she was in my arms, and it was all I could do not to smile like a stoner. We spent that entire day learning how to be Brooke and Dad.

Her resemblance to her mom stunned me, as did the fact that she used language in a way I’d always thought was my thing: She spoke in paragraphs, these long, run-on sentences filled with adjectives, adverbs, and digressions.

Too soon, the visiting room was closing. We slow-walked and lingered as best we could.

We had to watch each other walk away, unsure when we would see each other again or how our relationship would move forward. She would go back to her boyfriend, waiting in the parking lot. I would go back to my cell with its spartan, white, concrete walls, its stainless steel toilet/sink combo — and loneliness. And I would pull the door closed behind me.

Daniel Royston is a 40-year-old inmate at Marion Correctional Institution in Marion, Ohio, where he is serving 31 years for a rape and burglary he committed when he was 21.