Zackery Williams is sure of one thing: There’s nobody quite like his daughter, Alexus, who is about to turn 4.

“She’s the number one girl in the world,” Williams says, smiling. “She’s the best child ever.”

That’s the way he remembers her. He hasn’t seen his little girl since he arrived at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham in handcuffs 27 months ago on drug-related charges.

“The damage I’ve done,” Williams says, “I just gotta prove myself before people start trusting me again, including my daughter and her mother.”

Williams, 29, sits at a desk in a brightly lit room in the prison basement with four other inmates. They’re leafing through a stack of magazines, kid-size scissors at the ready.

Norene Hopkins, the community program coordinator at the prison, is passing out construction paper for the collages they’re about to make.

“I would like you to cut out things,” Hopkins says, “that your children know about you or that you know about your children.”

Williams cuts out the words “my precious” and “treasured,” carefully placing them on a square of white paper.

He is among a handful of inmates at the Maine Correctional Center participating in a program called InsideOut Dad, developed by the nonprofit, Maryland-based National Fatherhood Initiative.

“In this program,” says senior consultant Greg Austen, “we give them a vision that they have a unique and irreplaceable role in the lives of their children. For a lot of these guys it’s the first time they’ve ever heard that … they’re not just the ‘optional’ parent. That becomes a powerful motivator for a successful re-entry (into society).”

It is for Williams.

“Ever since that first phone call when she said, ‘Daddy, I love you,'” says Williams, “I haven’t been in trouble. I’m just trying to do everything I can to better myself here so when I get out I can make up to her the time that I’ve lost.”

He tries to hold back tears but can’t.

“The pain is constant. It’s always there.”

In the 12-week class, they talk about how to be a more committed, involved dad; how to rebuild, if possible, the relationship with the mother of their children; and how to deal with some of the parenting challenges they’ll face when they walk back outside the prison gates.

“Usually when people come in here, the world stops for them,” Hopkins says. “They remember their kids being 2 years old, and when they get out their children are 5 and 6 and they’ve changed and their needs are different.”

Some inmates have no contact with their kids while in prison. Others, like 31-year old Adam Gray, who’s serving a six-year sentence on drug charges, manage to maintain a relationship based on occasional visits, letters and once-a-week phone calls.

“This (class) has helped me a lot,” says Gray, whose daughter, Alyssa, is 3½. “I’ve never really thought about what comes with being a dad … how every choice that I make from now on has some kind of effect on her and her life.”

He’s got big plans for the future.

“What I want to see,” he says, “is for me to go out and build my relationship back with my daughter’s mother and have the greatest relationship with my daughter.”

But that is going to take some work, says Alyssa’s mother, Dawn Moores.

“I don’t know what her image of a DaDa is, which is kind of sad to me,” Moores says, watching Alyssa play on the floor of their Bucksport apartment.

“Yes, that’s his daughter; he loves her, but that bond isn’t there. You know what I mean? So I think it’s still gonna be a struggle for him when he gets out.”

She hopes they can be a family again. But she worries about his addiction.

So does he.

“I really hope I can stay away from the drugs,” Gray says. “That’s what I want. I am a drug addict. I have been for a long time, and that’s a hard thing to change.”

But he’s motivated in a way he never was before.

“I take every class there is,” he says, “trying to change my behaviors.”

That, Hopkins says, is the ultimate goal of the InsideOut Dad program.

“One of the things that is the biggest drive for men not to reoffend is connections with their family,” Hopkins says. “Well, family starts with your kids. And if they can get a really good connection with their children, the chances are they will not reoffend.”

That’s Gray’s goal.

“I’m never going to get back the first time she said, ‘Mama,’ or the first time she walked,” Gray says. “That’s a really deep hurt. That’s one thing that can make somebody get sad in here, especially when … you try to hold it all in.”

The one place they don’t have to hold it all in is in Hopkins’ classroom.

“At that moment,” Hopkins says, “they can forget they are in prison and they’re just a bunch of people talking about being parents.”

That is where the work starts – and the healing begins.

” I’ve already got it in my mind: I’ve got to live for (Alyssa) now,” Gray says. “So I really believe when I get out there I’m not going to miss anything else. Because I don’t think I’m going to come back.”