No Bars to Love ; the Girl Scouts Help Incarcerated Mothers and Their Daughters Build Strong Bonds

By Elizabeth Lund writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 5, 2003 | Go to article overview

No Bars to Love ; the Girl Scouts Help Incarcerated Mothers and Their Daughters Build Strong Bonds


Elizabeth Lund writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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.

A glimpse into a hopeful future

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. …

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