Girl Scout Troops Go Behind Bars to Visit Mom

Prison program aims to strengthen family ties and help daughters avoid a similar path

Cynthia Shelton's Girl Scout troop is a lot like other Girl Scout troops. Along with co-leader Gray Sawyer, Ms. Shelton and her charges engage in leadership activities and crafts, talk about self-esteem and ethics, and go on special trips and outings.

But one particular outing makes their troop stand out: Every other Saturday, they visit the girls' mothers, who are in prison.

Ms. Shelton's troop is one of a growing number popping up across the country as part of Girl Scouts Beyond Bars, a mother-daughter prison-visitation program. As the largest organization for girls in the world celebrates its 85th birthday this month, the effort shows how much the mission of the Girl Scouts has changed and adapted with the times.

"We're making a big effort to make sure Girl Scouts are everywhere girls are, whether it's homeless shelters, cities, suburbs, or in prisons," says executive director Mary Rose Main. The first Girl Scout program in a maximum-security juvenile facility, for example, is now a year old.

Sentencing generations

The catalyst for "Beyond Bars" was Baltimore judge Carol Smith - and a day she will never forget. That day she sentenced a woman in the morning and the woman's daughter in the afternoon. She contacted the US Department of Justice and said, in so many words, that something needed to be done.

"Judges are very aware of the fact they're sentencing generations into corrections," says Marilyn Moses, program manager for the Justice Department's National Institute of Justice, who took to heart the judge's lament over the double sentencing, and then spearheaded Beyond Bars.

According to the Justice Department, the number of women in state prisons grew 75 percent from 1986 to 1991 - to about 39,000. Two-thirds of those women had at least one child under the age of 18. At the time of the survey in 1994, the Justice Department estimated that about 56,000 minor children had mothers in prison.

Children of prison inmates are six times more likely to become imprisoned, one study suggests.

With this in mind, Ms. Moses sought out a partnership between Girl Scouts and the Maryland Division of Corrections to start a mother-child visitation program.

The pilot program was born in November 1992. Girl Scouts started visiting their mothers in the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women twice a month. Soon, the concept spread.

Today Girl Scouts Beyond Bars is in 19 correctional institutions in 10 states. Another 10 states are waiting to start their own programs.

Filling a need

"The need is obvious and compelling," says Jeremy Travis, director of the National Institute of Justice. "Children and families are impacted by the imprisonment of parents. We as a society have very few ways to meet this need for the next generation to grow up in healthy relationships with parents."

Beyond Bars aims to keep the girls from following in their mothers' footsteps. "We talk about making decisions for life, taking responsibility for your actions," says Gloria Miller, program leader with the Spanish Trails Girl Scout Council in Montclair, Calif., who coordinates daughter-mother visits at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco. She says Beyond Bars has had a positive impact on the entire troop. "I know that if two of my girls weren't here, they would be in gangs."

For the girls, the program can be emotionally difficult at first. "Children are the unseen victims," says Ms. Shelton, whose Boston-area troop visits the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Framingham, Mass. Sometimes there are tears when the two-hour visitation is up. Also, especially at the beginning, resentment can be high. Last Christmas, one seven-year-old decided she would rather take part in her school play than visit her mother. When her mother called to ask, "Why?" the girl quipped, "You didn't have to be where you are."

Another girl in a Beyond Bars program in Florida went to see her mother, but her mother was in "lock down" for misbehaving. Her daughter let her know that if that ever happened again, she didn't want to come back. It didn't.

"We decided early on that we weren't going to pry into the 'whys' that put the women in [prison]," Shelton says. "Regardless, they're mothers."

Productive meetings

Juana, an inmate at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Framingham, Mass., sees her daughter, Jennifer, through the Patriots Trail (Boston) Beyond Bars program. The meetings go beyond activities such as making necklaces, she says. "We can hold them," she says, "and we can play fun games together."

But troop meetings aren't all fun and games, Juana stresses. The mothers, who are required to take parenting classes, talk to their daughters about why it's important to stay on the right track. They also help with school work.

Kathleen Block, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Baltimore, led a two-year study of the Maryland Beyond Bars program.

"The emotional kind of issues seemed to be alleviated after the mothers and their daughters spent time with each other in the program," she says. The only problem: Some of the girls' brothers felt left out. The National Institute of Justice says it's addressing this issue.

Leaders like Shelton find themselves wearing many hats, from surrogate mom to detective to social worker. Even small logistics can become big challenges, from coordinating transportation to getting everyone through metal detectors. In true Girl Scout-leader fashion, Shelton frequently finds herself quoting Girl Scout phrases, such as "respect authority." Then when she hears those words recited in the prison meetings, she is reminded that Girl Scouts can be over 18, too.

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