Magazine article Corrections Today

New Program at Women's Prison Benefits Mothers and Children

Magazine article Corrections Today

New Program at Women's Prison Benefits Mothers and Children

Article excerpt

Girl Scouts Behind Bars?, This may sound like a tabloid headline, but it is actually the story of a promising new program at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women (MCIW) in Jessup. The nine-month-old program, which is run by the Girl Scouts of Central Maryland (GSCM) with assistance from the National Institute of Justice, is the first Girl Scout troop for incarcerated women and their daughters.

Established on a pilot basis, the troop includes 30 mothers from MCIW. In July, the program was honored with the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges' annual award for the most unique and innovative project.

The project focuses as much on the mothers as on the daughters. It offers traditional Girl Scout leadership and general adult development courses in an effort to improve parenting skills. With volunteer support and training, the mothers are able to assume temporary responsibility for their daughters through Girl Scout troop activities.

"Clearly, I have a great interest in enhanced program opportunities for MCIW women," says Melanie Pereira, who was warden of the facility until last April and is now deputy commissioner of the Maryland Division of Correction. "But the strength of this program is that it offers the child more than just a visit with her mother."

The daughters, who range in age from five to 17, join their mothers twice monthly for troop meetings at MCIW. During these two-hour sessions, the women spend supervised group and individual time playing with their daughters, working on troop projects and planning for future activities. The program also includes joint mother/daughter educational seminars featuring sessions on family life issues such as self-esteem, drug abuse, relationships, coping with family crises, the reproductive system and teenage pregnancy prevention.

On alternate weeks the girls meet in the community, just like traditional troops, at sessions run by Girl Scout volunteers. They finish projects, start new ones, take field trips and cultivate friendships.

Responding to a Need

"I was not really thrilled about working in a prison," says Rae Lipscomb, GSCM's program director. "But I saw that the need was great once I met the mothers and their daughters. This is a great opportunity for our staff and volunteers to reach girls who really need the best that Girl Scouting has to offer."

The need is all too real. Studies have documented a correlation between a parent's incarceration and the child's increased probability of anxiety, depression, aggression, learning disorders, poor school performance, truancy, teenage pregnancy and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Incarcerated mothers themselves have confirmed the adverse effects of their criminal behavior on their children. A 1992 survey administered by the Maryland Governor's Office of Children, Youth and Families asked, "What difficulties has your child had adjusting to your incarceration?" Nearly 57 percent reported that their children had reacted negatively. They noted emotional and behavioral problems as well as learning and disciplinary difficulties in school.

Perhaps the most disheartening finding comes from a recent study which estimated that children with imprisoned parents are almost six times more likely than their counterparts to become incarcerated. Pereira echoes these findings. "Sadly, I have seen three generations of women in this institution--grandmother, mother and granddaughter," she says. "Perhaps with this program there is hope that this intergenerational cycle will be broken."

The Role of Volunteers

Volunteers play an essential role in the Scouting program. "These are very special children requiring a lot of attention," says Muriel Gates, GSCM's special project coordinator. "Without dedicated volunteers, we would not be able to serve these girls. These volunteers are the backbone of our organization. …

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