ONCE HE realized that he wasn't going to grow tall enough to become a professional basketball player, Ricky Duncan dropped out of South Philadelphia High School for a life of selling drugs, promoting concerts and spending cash so casually that his street name was "Ricky Rolex."

But that life sent him away to the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Graterford for 10 years. He learned that the fancy watches and the cars he'd bought for cash at age 16 didn't last long once he was arrested.

"Whatever they don't confiscate, you have to sell," he said. "It was just a bunch of materialistic stuff that goes to paying for a lawyer and helping to care for your family."

Duncan, 39, was released from jail in July and works for a drug-and-alcohol-counseling program. He focuses on working with ex-offenders, like himself.

Behind bars, Duncan not only earned his high-school diploma, but a drug-and-alcohol-education certificate, said his employer, Lloyd Thomas Reid, executive director of SouthWest Nu-Stop Recovery and Educational Center.

Duncan also credits a parenting program for incarcerated men called Fathers and Children Together, or FACT, for turning his life around.

FACT teaches men to become better fathers - with six weeks of counseling about accountability, responsibility, and how to form real bonds with their children, followed by six weeks of one-on-one visits with one of their children.

On the seventh week, the mothers stay with their children for a graduation ceremony. FACT's latest group of fathers was set to graduate yesterday.

At one point during the six weeks of visits, fathers stand up and tell their children they are sorry.

"You do it in front of everybody," said Dawan Williams, another father who used to be at Graterford .

"The fathers apologize for being absent in their lives and how it has affected them and how it affected us. Some of the fathers break down and cry. It's an emotional moment."

Although he is a married father of eight and stepfather to four, Ricky Duncan said he didn't really understand how to be a father before FACT.

He once thought that giving his children money for new clothes and sneakers was enough.

"FACT showed me that being a father is not about money, it's about communications, bonding and understanding."

The program was conceived by lifers at Graterford who saw that most of the younger men coming into prison had grown up without fathers in their lives, said Minnie Moore-Johnson, FACT's program coordinator.

The inmates met with former state Rep. Ronald Waters and created the program, which also got approval from the state Department of Corrections.

"During family visits, the fathers spend most of the time talking with the mothers about household matters, while the children are sort of pushed to the side," Waters said.

FACT, which officially began in 2012, takes about 15 children in a group on vans to Graterford once a week for six weeks to visit with their fathers.

The mothers accompany the children in vans, but the mothers go out to dinner to learn some of the same parenting lessons that a team of professionals teaches the men.

With one-on-one visits, children get their fathers' undivided attention. But sometimes the children are shy.

"As an ice-breaker, the children paint with their fathers so they have something to talk about," Moore-Johnson said.

The Mural Arts Program helps direct the painting projects.

Duncan went through FACT two years ago when his daughter was 11. His wife, Tahira Duncan, said their daughter, now 13, developed a special bond with him.

"At one point, she called him her best friend," Tahira Duncan said.

"If I had an issue with her, she'd want to talk to him about it. He'd be the one to deal with her over the phone [while still in prison.]"

'I was a drug dealer'

Karim Williams grew up in the Richard Allen Homes housing project and was always getting suspended from the Wannamaker Middle School at 11th Street near Cecil B. Moore Avenue.

Not for fighting, he said. But for being angry.

What his teachers or counselors didn't know, he said, was that he had no one to help him deal with his grief after his best friend was found dead. The 10-year-old girl had been missing for 13 months. Her little corpse had been stuffed into a roof vent of a nearby housing project.

"They [school officials] didn't know my best friend was found dead on the roof. They didn't really care," he said.

"It got to the point where my mom had to go up there and say, 'Y'all can't keep suspending my son 'cause he's not going to learn anything.' I feel like I was pushed out of school."

After dropping out of school, Williams began selling drugs. He spent 8 1/2 years in jail for shooting a man.

"I was living a selfish lifestyle," he said. "I was a drug dealer. I went to sell somebody some drugs, and he tried to rob me. And when he tried to rob me, I shot him and I got locked up."

On Nov. 9, Williams, 32, was released from Graterford and is living in a halfway house.

The day he was released, he surprised his 11-year-old daughter who had been among the children visiting their dads every week earlier this year. (Williams and his daughter graduated from the program in May.)

He met her at the FACT office on Woodland Avenue near 55th Street.

"The first thing I wanted to do was see my children, surprise my daughter and spend my whole day with my family, that's what I wanted," he said.

With a month still to go in the halfway house, Williams said, he received job training in electronics, food-service safety and construction safety. He now wants to get a job.

After the parenting program, most men take an active role in their children's lives, said Moore-Johnson of FACT.

"Fathers contact the schools, even though they're in prison, they are co-parenting the child," she said.

'Very powerful'

Dawan Williams (no relation to Karim Williams), 33, began writing letters to his son's teachers and principals when he was behind bars.

Jason Harris, principal of the Joseph Pennell Elementary School, said that in 11 years as a principal, he had never previously received a letter from a child's incarcerated parent.

"It was so well-written and deeply rooted in his concern for his son," Harris said. "He just wanted to know what was going on with his son. It was very powerful and very moving."

Harris said that Dawan Williams' son, Dajuan, now 10, who had been getting suspended from school, began to improve his behavior.

"He's doing so well this year. You can tell he is processing things different. he doesn't act so much in anger as quickly as he used to."

Dawan Williams, released from Graterford last year, said in prison, many men talk of "knowing their children only through Kodak."

They received pictures as their children grew up over the years, but the jailed fathers didn't really know them.

In counseling, Dawan Williams said, fathers were asked if they knew basic things about their children.

"Like, what's your child's favorite color? What's their favorite food? Who is their best friend?" he said.

He's a firm believer that the men at Graterford who become better fathers will help stem the flow of more young people into the prison system.

After serving a 10-year term for armed robbery, Dawan Williams believes his faith in God will keep him making progress.

Next Monday, he is about to go from a part-time worker to a full-time job as coordinator of the Mural Arts Program's Guild Program, said Robyn Buseman, director of Mural Arts' Restorative Justice program.

The program provides job training for young adults ages 18 to 24, who are on parole.

Buseman said Guild members learn carpentry, painting and other skills. They have built the scaffolding for artists working on murals and built raised beds and fences for neighborhood gardens and playgrounds.

Dawan Williams started working with the program soon after his release from prison last year.

Buseman said over the summer, a couple of the young men got involved in something they shouldn't have been doing, and they called Dawan Williams to help them.

"He's someone they can talk to when they're in trouble. He's a role model," Buseman said. "He gives respect and gets respect."

Williams just learned Thursday that his son, Dajuan, made honor role "for the first time in life. I broke down in tears, tears of excitement, tears of joy. I just had a proud father moment."

This was a child who used to make D's and was always getting suspended, Williams said.

"This year, his teachers said there is extreme, drastic improvement in Dajuan," Dawan Williams said.

And that has made him proud.

While he no longer lives with Dajuan's mom, they are a team when it comes to their son.

"It's being there for your child," he said.

On Twitter: @ValerieRussDN