No bars to love
The Girl Scouts help incarcerated mothers and their daughters build strong bonds.
NIANTIC, CONN. — They look like a row of baby birds, perched on a pile of gym mats. All 16 girls crane their necks, eyes fixed on the gymnasium door. They have waited two long weeksfor this.
A few minutes later, the excitement level rises as women enter from the far side of the building. Each wears a uniform: gray or purple shirt and jeans. The girls lean forward a little more, studying the women's faces.
Then one by one, the girls dive off the mats.
"Mom!" shouts one 9-year-old, racing across the floor, and throwing her arms around a woman.
Two older girls, 11 and 13, walk over quickly, as if they're trying to look a bit more dignified. But their reserve soon gives place to emotion. They, too, shower their mom with hugs and smiles.
Five-year-old Shamaine is the youngest of the group. She's a bit shy, hesitant, but her gaze never leaves her mother's face as she walks behind her 9-year-old sister. Their mom bends down and gives each a squeeze.
Welcome to Girl Scouts Beyond Bars.
Girl Scouts? What's an organization known for squeaky-clean values and selling cookies doing bringing girls into a state prison? Changing with the times, that's what, and helping the Scouts get to know their mothers, some of whom have been incarcerated for years.
The program began in Baltimore 11 years ago, as a pilot project between Girl Scouts USA and the National Institute of Justice. The goal was to help girls - and their mothers - who desperately needed positive role models as well as a sense of hope and possibility for their futures.
The program has since spread to 29 prisons in 23 states. And everywhere it has gone, it has given girls wings by providing the same kind of positive, structured experiences that their sister Scouts on the outside take for granted.
In fact, if it weren't for the corrections officer at the other end of the building and the razor wire that crowns the perimeter fence, one could almost imagine that this Girl Scout meeting was taking place in a school or community center, not a state prison.
And that is a major aim of the program. Every other Saturday, the York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Conn., ceases to be just a reminder of past failures and instead offers a glimpse of what the future could hold.
Mothers and daughters spend two hours working on projects and chatting leisurely. They learn and reinforce positive values together. They can reconnect, or in some cases, connect for the first time.
The process begins right after the opening ceremony - which includes the Pledge of Allegiance and the Girl Scout pledge - when everyone files into an activity room at the back of the gymnasium. There, lunch is waiting, provided by the prison.
Two of the moms pass out the food, and the room quickly fills with the hum of conversation, the sort of lunchtime talk you might hear between any mothers and daughters: "Do you want dressing on your salad?" "Would you like some tomato soup?" "How was school this week?"
At one table, a mom named Shareka pulls apart a grilled-cheese sandwich for little Shamaine, who's typically a picky eater. "I thought you would like this," she says. (The prison has asked that only first names be used.)
"You had a good report card," she tells her older daughter, Shoniece, who is in her second year of participating in Girl Scouts Behind Bars (GSBB). Shoniece beams and sits up a bit straighter.
"I'm so proud of you two for doing so well," says Shareka, who has been in prison for four years.
Little Shamaine stays silent, still a bit bashful, but never takes her eyes off Mom. This is the kindergartner's first year in the program - and the first time she's had a chance to get to really know her mother, who was sent to prison when she was a toddler.
"Girl Scouts Beyond Bars gives me a chance to be a mother," says Shareka, who will be eligible for parole in the fall. "I didn't have a good relationship with them at home. And I was always scared of getting out [of prison] and being rejected by my kids. But now I get to start off gradually. You can't just come in [to a child's life] and say, 'I'm your mother, I had you, you're coming with me.' "
Another mother at the table nods in agreement. And both concur that the easy interactions they have with their daughters here in the activity room could never happen in the prison's visiting room.
There, instead of unlimited hugs, the families are allowed to have physical contact only at the beginning and ending of their visit, and guards monitor their every move. Before the girls can enter the visiting room, they must remove their shoes and belts, pull out their pockets for inspection, and pass through a metal detector. It's an unnerving experience even for adults.
"There, they hear doors slam and they have guards watching them all the time," says Shareka. "That's scary."
But Troop 3043 avoids most of that. The girls are picked up by bus at their homes, and when they arrive at the prison, a guard does a head count. Then they are taken directly to the gymnasium.
The only officer in the building with them is Bob Carini, "the good cop," as the girls call him. But he doesn't attend their meetings unless he is needed.
A sense of normalcy, after all, is what the program strives for.
Normalcy means not just cementing conventional mother-daughter bonds, but also nudging participants to look beyond their own interests and learn to contribute to the greater good.
"This is not [just] a visitation program," says troop leader Shameika Moncrief, a teacher who previously led a Girl Scout group in a New Haven, Conn., community center. "Everyone has responsibilities."
For the women, those responsibilities extend beyond setup or cleanup at the twice-monthly gatherings.
They meet every two weeks with Ms. Moncrief to help plan menus and future activities. They must attend and complete parenting classes.
Most important, they must walk the straight and narrow every day in the prison. If they get in trouble, they can't attend GSBB meetings and see their daughters.
That's a powerful motivator, according to Jeannette Archer-Simmons, executive director of the Connecticut Trails Girl Scout Council. She brought the program to Connecticut four years ago.
"The girls hold their mothers accountable for behaving so that they can continue in the program," she explains. "I saw a 5-year-old take her mother to task for missing several meetings because the mother had not met behavior standards of the prison. The mother never missed a meeting again."
The Girl Scouts must also pitch in at meetings - volunteering for at least one chore per visit.
Once lunch has been cleared away, the Scouts begin their first activity - making family trees.
Elizabeth, one of the moms, chats nonstop with her daughters, Geraldine and Jennifer, as they trace their hands. Like all the moms with daughters in this troop, Elizabeth cherishes the program's emphasis on responsibility and the relaxed atmosphere, saying, "It takes us all out of prison."
That's especially important now that her daughters are adolescents. The two live with their maternal grandmother, whom they love, but is "old-fashioned," according to Elizabeth.
Talking to Mom is easier, the girls say, especially about peer pressure and boys.
"I can speak with my grandmother," says Geraldine, who's 13. "But when I come here I feel more comfortable [bringing up problems and asking for advice]. My mom understands, and she doesn't get mad if it's something personal. If it's bad she'll tell me how to fix it."
Eleven-year-old Jennifer, who has long brown braids, nods in agreement. "I can talk with her about things that happen at home."
One reason the girls feel free to open up, they say, is that Mom has been so open with them about her own mistakes.
"We talk about choices all the time," says Elizabeth. "I'm not proud of the choices I've made, and I've told them when I'm wrong. I was a very angry person [years ago], and I've learned to turn that around. I teach them to express themselves, that the most important thing is to let it out instead of stuffing it down.
"We made a deal when I first came here [seven years ago]," she continues. "[My children and I] put our hands together, and I told them, 'I will do well in here, if you do well out there.' "
Elizabeth has kept her end of the bargain - earning her GED, a cosmetology license, and taking several college courses. She has also earned more than 30 certificates from self-help groups, raised a prison puppy, and worked as a peer drug counselor.
Geraldine and Jennifer have done their part as well: Both are on the honor roll at school, are active in their communities, and are committed to never doing time themselves.
"I don't want to end up in jail," says Geraldine, "This isn't a life I want."
Comments like that make troop leader Moncrief very happy. One of the goals of GSBB, she says, is to show the daughters of incarcerated women that prison doesn't have to be an inevitable part of their lives; they can choose a different direction for themselves.
"Statistics show that children of incarcerated parents are six times more likely to get into trouble [than the average child]," says Moncrief. "GSBB was designed to help the mothers improve their parenting skills and the girls improve their self-confidence, social, leadership skills."
To that end, the troop discusses such issues as bullying and eating disorders, drug abuse and suicide prevention, and the kinds of real-life skills the girls will need to succeed.
"It helps girls make good decisions," says Moncrief of the program, and it helps to "break the cycle of incarceration that oftentimes exists."
The York troop serves about 25 girls annually. Nationwide, there are 500 in the program. Moncrief, who has been troop leader for almost a year, knows of only one mom who has returned to prison after being released.
But as the girls and their moms finish up their family trees, failure is the last thing on their minds. They move to the gym for a game of Tangled, where they start as a messy jumble, join hands, and then work together to untangle themselves and form a smooth circle - without letting go of anyone's fingers.
The group works as a team, laughing and making suggestions that this mother step over someone's hands, that daughter duck under someone else's arms. Everything seems so natural, even down to the girls' attire.
Gone are the green uniforms and beanies that, for years, were standard issue for Girl Scouts. Instead, Troop 3043 members wear jeans and white T-shirts that their mothers have decorated. Many of their sister Scouts in the outside world have also shed most of their green get-ups, except for the sash.
What hasn't changed, though, is the ability of the Girl Scout approach to change young lives in powerful, visible ways.
After a second round of Tangled, the group moves back into the activity room to make get-well cards for a fellow Scout. Everyone is smiling and chattering away like sparrows. Even little Shamaine.
In fact, this shy little bird has shed all of her reticence and is ready to show off.
"She knows who the president of the United States is," says her mother proudly. "And she knows who the governor of the state is. Tell her, Shamaine."
The little girl with wide brown eyes puffs herself up a bit and speaks very clearly. "George Bush," she says, obviously enjoying the attention. "And John Rowland."
Everyone is impressed. But the Girl Scout staff is not surprised by Shamaine's dramatic turnabout. They have seen such blossoming time after time, family after family.
So has the prison staff.
Mr. Carini, "the good cop," has worked in corrections for 18 years.
"It's very healing for [these] kids to have the kind of loving relationship that other kids have with their mothers," he says.
"And it restores something really precious to the women; it gives them a chance to fulfill their most important role in life. When people are doing well emotionally, when they feel hope, feel encouraged, they can do much better in here."
Carini would certainly know. He's the prison's counselor supervisor for outpatient drug treatment. Substance abuse, he says, is something that 85 percent of the women struggle with. They may be arrested for writing bad checks or for stealing, for example, but the root problem is often addiction.
Girl Scouts Beyond Bars is different from the prison's many treatment programs, he says, because "you are seeing the genuine woman here."
Shamaine isn't old enough to know what "the genuine woman" means. But she does know that she is happier having her mother in her life. In fact, she can't stop smiling.
And if the Girl Scouts have their way, this little fledgling - and the rest of her troop - will continue to soar, week after week.
• For more information on Girl Scouts Beyond Bars, call 800-GSUSA-4U.