By Danielle Ferguson
Phauness Bell was 6 years old the first time she went to prison.
She passed through a metal detector, down a narrow hallway and waited behind a loud, thick door to meet her father in a Louisiana federal penitentiary.
She doesn’t remember speaking much with him. She mainly played board games while her grandma visited with a man she had heard over the phone, but never seen.
Phauness was less than two weeks old when her father, Greg Bell, was arrested in Sioux Falls on felony drug and weapons charges and sentenced to 11 years behind bars. Their first post-prison encounter came in Louisiana soon after his release. It was the first time he ever hugged her in street clothes.
“It was kind of weird,” says Phauness, 12, who lives in Sioux Falls with her mother. “But I was excited to see him.”
“It was pure joy for me,” says Greg Bell.
He has been free for about a year now, residing in Sioux Falls and trying to reconstruct his life with help from agencies such as Lutheran Social Services. For someone who grew up without a father in Arkansas and first ran afoul of the law in his 20s, the path toward a “normal” life is long and uneven, but not without glimpses of promise.
During the four months Argus Leader Media spent with Bell to chronicle his journey, he had to learn to exist without prison schedules, adjust to new technology, juggle jobs and bills and face the death of his mother, all while trying to connect with a 12-year-old daughter who was accustomed to him being behind bars.
Of all the challenges faced by a former inmate as he navigates his newfound freedom, being a father could be the most formidable of all.