A reporter finds the unexpected

Sometimes the story a writer comes back with is not the story she expected to find.

That was the case recently when I drove to the women's prison in Connecticut to do a piece on the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program. (See story) As the miles passed, I wondered what I'd see. Something compelling, I hoped, perhaps the kind of drama that I'd heard about from an inmate at the prison where I volunteer.

That woman's 9-year-old daughter, like many kids who have a parent in jail, was having a hard time with the separation. At the end of one visit, the girl ran over to the guard on duty. "Please don't make me go home," she begged. "I'll sleep on the floor and be really quiet."

That scene haunted the mother for days, and it would've made for a powerful opening to a feature story.

But that wasn't what I saw. Instead, I found quieter dramas, the kind that slowly change lives and prepare inmates for the day when they walk out of prison.

There was the moment, for example, when all of the women congratulated the scout who sang "My Country 'Tis of Thee" at the beginning of the meeting. This teen had a voice that would make Mariah Carey jealous, and the moms wanted her to have the confidence they had lacked at her age.

They also wanted the girls to have good manners, gently correcting them when they said, "Hey you" instead of addressing someone by name. And when it was time for the girls to leave, the mothers waved and said goodbye to every scout.

These are the ordinary details that people don't usually hear about in prison stories. But they are the actions that children remember, actions that have lasting effects long after the reporter and the newspaper reader have moved on.

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