The worst part of being in prison was the 18 months he didn't see his young daughter, Jemel Johnson told a group of teen-age males yesterday.
"And that's what really hurts," said Mr. Johnson, 23, of East Baltimore, who was released this summer. "You just hate so much to miss not seeing your child."
Mr. Johnson and other ex-offenders talked about the responsibilities of fatherhood at a Fathers Day program at Laurence G. Paquin School in East Baltimore. The school is for teen-age females who are either pregnant or gave birth recently. The young men who were present yesterday are the boyfriends of the young women, some of them fathers already and others awaiting the birth of their child.
"Being a man is accepting your responsibility," Mr. Johnson told the group. "Being a man is being able to wake up at 4 o'clock in the morning and fixing the bottle when the baby cries. That's responsibility and being a man. I'm going to see my daughter grow up."
Mr. Johnson told his audience that he lived the "good street life" of a stick-up man and hustler near the Barclay neighborhood and had little fear of anyone while on the streets.
But pride and embarrassment caused him to refuse to allow family members -- including his daughter -- to visit him while he was incarcerated. "I didn't want her to see this environment because it wasn't good," Mr. Johnson said. "This place was not somewhere that children should see."
Mr. Johnson, who works as a machine operator for Parks Sausage Co., said that although he was young when his daughter was born, a strong bond had developed between them by the time he went to prison.
"That's why jail is so hard, because in there you worry, just worry. You worry about her being caught in the cross-fire of a gunfight on the streets and you worry about leaving her in the hands of someone else," he said. "It's my responsibility to be out there for her and what she needs and I couldn't do that when I was in jail."
Mr. Johnson said that before he went to prison he ripped off drug addicts and dealers, held up people who were armed and walked the streets "strapped 24-seven," meaning he was armed all day, every day.
He conceded that his actions were not in the best interests of his daughter. "It was more or less thinking about myself and what I could for myself only," Mr. Johnson said. "But when I went [to prison] that all changed. I realized who cared about me. Now things are fine. I have my family and they support me a lot."
Johns Evans, 46, who was released from prison Wednesday after serving five years, said he worried about what his 9-year-old daughter might be told about him.
"It's confusing and it hurts when you go in," Mr. Evans said. "You leave your child and it's like you lost your left arm. You don't know what their mother is telling them about how bad you are and all the bad things you've done."
Earl McIntyre, 21, said he spent $5,000 on his son the day the child came home from the hospital. He had lots of money from his involvement in the drug trade.
"I hustled day and night to make sure that things would be all right when he came home. I wanted to make sure things were all right," Mr. McIntyre said.
But Mr. McIntyre's life caught up with him. He was convicted of drug charges and sent to prison. While there, he said, he realized that spending time with his son was more important than the gifts with which he showered the child.
Not all of the youths at the Fathers Day program were moved by the warnings from the ex-offenders.
One said it is all right to take risks as long as provisions are made for the child. Another said he has established a bank account for his child "with nearly $500" in case something happens to him.