Children of Prisoners Reunite with their Fathers Behind Bars for a Day

Prison ministry program 'One Day With God' help children reconcile with their incarcerated parents.
10:23 | 12/12/15

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Transcript for Children of Prisoners Reunite with their Fathers Behind Bars for a Day
We begin with the children of prisoners. The silent victims of incarceration getting a rare opportunity, a chance to spend a single day with their fathers in prison. Some say it can make a world of difference. But how do you fit a lifetime's worth of parenting into just 24 hours? "Nightline" coanchor juju Chang goes behind prison walls for our series "Face to face." This is a collect phone call from TRE, a prisoner at the department of corrections -- Hello. Hey. Y'all getting ready to come? Can't wait till you get here. Reporter: 8-year-old arkinia graham has never met her father. They've grown close over the phone. But Johnny TRE Williams is serving 23 years in prison for second degree murder. I'm excited to see you and I'm nervous. Reporter: Today she and nearly 30 other kids are getting a special visit with their dads designed to prevent the kind of damage kids suffer when a parent is in prison. They're going to have fun -- Yes. Reporter: They are some of the nearly 3 million children in this country with a mom or dad behind bars. Ethan Buckner is 7. You're going to see your dad today? Reporter: Maya Matthews is 9. She and her little brother live three hours away. So how excited are you to see your dad? Very. Like, I can jump super high. Because I'm so excited. You're so excited, I know. My dad -- She's here, do you want to meet her? Reporter: Maya has visited before but today is different. Arkinia, I want you to meet Maya. She heard about you. Meeting your dad behind bars is a really big deal. Why is it a big deal? Like this is the one time you can sit in their lap, let him hug you. He can't get up at all. Reporter: The day before the kids arrive, the dads get a seminar on fatherhood. That's where we meet Maya's father. What's it like waiting six months to see your kids? Reporter: Jeremiah Matthews has been in and out of jail for 12 years for burglary. I just get scared that they're going to forget. I know my daughter forgets me. She told me that this is the last time, dad. She's like, I love you but you keep breaking promises, getting in trouble. She was 7 when she told me this. And I don't want to disappoint. I've said some very mean things to him. You've said mean things to him? What kind of things have you said? Like I'm not going to trust you no more because you promised you'd be there for me the rest of your life action then you go back to jail. What did he say when you said that? He just was like, okay, then, please gain that trust back, as soon as I get out I'll try to make everything different. Do you believe him? Eh -- You want to? Yeah, I want to. But it's hard to? He's lied to me. What you want to do when you look your child in the eyes -- Reporter: Arkinia's dad is learning about fatherhood as well. There for you, always will be. Reporter: He wound up killing a man in a bar fight. Though they talk a lot on the phone he's still anxious about meeting her face-to-face. What are you feeling? Anticipation. I'm shaking. Reporter: As nervous as any father getting to hold his daughter for the very first time. She brought something for you too. Hello, daddy, I really wish when I come to see you that you could come home with me. I love you so much. I love you too. Reporter: But this quiet moment is just a preview of what will be a very special day. The next morning, as excitement builds in this humble prison gym -- Boys and girls, they're coming in just a minute. Reporter: The dads are announced one by one. Ethan hasn't seen his dad in seven months. His pent-up emotions bubbling over. For Maya -- all her anguish and her doubt vanishes. I missed you guys. Missed you too. I love you. I love you too. Reporter: Arkinia doesn't hesitate. Her father no longer just a voice on the phone. Finally. Finally? You happy? I'm happy for you. Reporter: Jeremiah says he's working hard to stay out of trouble behind bars, to earn this day with his kids. There are 1,300 men in this prison. Only 20 of them are here today. I know this is a special event -- Reporter: The program, called one day with god, was founded by Scotty Barnes. -- The importance of these boys and girls having relationships with their mothers and fathers -- Reporter: She tells us her dad was a convicted drug dealer, spending most of her childhood locked up. I never had a hug, never been told I love you by my dad. A lot of people would say, these guys are convicted murderers. Felons. Why do they deserve this kind of perk? I think they forget that the children are the silent victims. The children from the time they're 8, 9 years old, go out on the streets and where the gangs are. Come on over and join my family. Reporter: Jeremiah says it's giving him incentives so that the next time he's released, in just 11 months, it will be the last. Throughout the day it's clear the dads are trying to cram years of parenting into a couple of hours. The trick to cursive is staying on the same lines -- Reporter: One day with god is in seven states, fueled by private donations. At a time when prison re-entry programs are being cut, they're expanding to five other prisons in Michigan alone. They may be walking in circles in a crowded gym, but for these fathers and sons, it's an intimate moment without the bars between them. Children of offender are six times more likely than their peers to end up in jail themselves. 15-year-old doricus green Jr. Is already in danger of fulfilling that prophecy. Today he's wearing an ankle bracelet under strict supervision, for his run-ins with the law. His dad is serving a life sentence for murder. We all we got. I told him I know I'm not out there with him, but I am here for him. Always. Can't nobody ever take that away from us. Reporter: For the girls there's a father/daughter dance. It hurts me knowing that I hurt her. I mean, she's like -- she's the most important female in my life. Other than my wife. She's really the most important. And I've lost so much time with her that I can never get back. To know that they got to go back home. I can't put it all in one day. There's no way. Reporter: Arkinia's dad is trying to be a father figure beyond this one day. When she started acting out in school recently it was her dad who helped straighten her out. He called me right away. He was like, can I speak with her? I'm like, okay, your dad is on the phone. I'm like, oh, he's calling her for business. He's parenting from behind bars? Yes. Reporter: She has a powerful reason for bringing her daughter from Florida to Michigan for this chance to bond with her dad. You work 12 hours a day. Yes. You're a single mom. Yes, ma'am. Why spend so much of your hard-earned money to bring your daughter here? Well, I was one of those kids, I was ashamed to tell people that my father was in prison. So I put myself in my daughter's shoes. Reporter: They have these shoe fleeting hours to say the things that need saying. I love you very, very much. Okay? You did nothing wrong, it's all my fault. Okay? It's all my fault. I'll be home soon. Okay? Soon? I'll be home soon. It means a lot to spend the day with my dad. It means everything. I love you so much. ? Sings my soul ? Reporter: So much loaded in one day. For the dads a pledge to strive to be better. For the kids a precious dose of what they need most. And for the rest of us, a reminder of what it means to be a good dad. And that the feeling of being embraced by your father can last forever. For "Nightline," I'm juju Chang in Muskegon, Michigan. What a feeling. One day with god in the end surprised arkinia's mom and us by reimbursing their airfare.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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