WOMENSENEWS--Two years ago, Marisa C. was in a painful downward slide: She was incarcerated on drug-possession charges in a minimum-security federal prison in Texas, her older teen-age daughter was pregnant and her 9-year-old younger daughter was barely speaking to her.
Today Marisa, 35, has a steady administrative job, an apartment in Austin, Texas, an increasingly positive relationship with her children and marriage plans with her children's father.
She credits her turnaround to a surprising source: the Girl Scouts.
Marisa and her younger daughter are among several hundred graduates of Girl Scouts Beyond Bars, a privately run program serving incarcerated women and their daughters that earlier this year received $2 million in federal funding. The program brought Marisa's younger daughter to the prison for mother-daughter activities, introduced the two to other women and girls in their situation and provided Marisa counseling and parenting advice.
"When no one else believed I could turn my life around, the Girl Scouts told me I could do it," says Marisa, who agreed to be interviewed on the condition that her last name not be used. "When people are always telling you that you don't amount to anything, for someone to say that you do, it means everything."
Piloted in 1992 at a women's prison in Maryland, Girl Scouts Beyond Bars currently operates at 23 facilities in 22 states through a network of local councils. Girls attend weekly meetings, alternating between in-prison sessions with their mothers and traditional troop meetings held near their homes. The mothers also attend supplemental parenting-support classes designed to teach care-giving skills that many of them never learned.
The one-time federal appropriation of $2 million, spearheaded by Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, a Democrat from South Carolina, and Sen. Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican, passed with bipartisan support in January. The funds will allow the Girl Scouts of the USA, the program's administrator, to increase the number of facilities it serves, including possible expansion to men's prisons.
"The Girl Scouts of America have a long track record of proven successes in providing young girls and women with a support system," said Gregg. "The Beyond Bars program builds on that, and promotes the values of family and responsibility."
The Number of Women in Prison Is Up 500 Percent Since 1980
Girl Scouts Beyond Bars is open to girls ages 5 to 17. The program provides bus transportation to the prisons and volunteers to sit with the girls during the often long rides. Meetings are conducted by licensed social workers, volunteers or Girl Scouts Beyond Bars staff members. In a typical meeting, mothers and daughters chat informally and work together to earn Girl Scouts badges, from science, architecture and math exercises to a "beauty badge" that helps girls to select age-appropriate clothes, hair, makeup and nail polish.
The girls work toward community service badges by creating crafts for local women's shelters, earn art badges by painting murals on prison walls and receive budgeting badges by constructing household budgets based on mock salaries and expenses. As part of earning a communications badge, mothers and daughters are ask to role play, acting out how they would handle situations such as an unexpected pregnancy or a drug-abuse problem.
According to research conducted by the Girl Scouts, the number of female prison inmates has skyrocketed 516 percent since 1980, with many of the women jailed on nonviolent drug and prostitution offenses. Moreover, 80 percent of women in prison have daughters. These girls are six times more likely to land in the juvenile justice system than children whose parents have not been in jail.
"Not growing up with your mom can have lots of negative consequences," says Dr. Adele D'Ari, a clinical psychologist who works with at-risk adolescent girls in the suburbs of Washington. "These girls have identity and self-esteem issues. If they do not work through the anger they may feel at being abandoned, they will have attachment problems that will impact their ability to form strong relationships as adults. They engage in high-risk behaviors, such as prostitution and drug use, at a much higher rate."
Giving women in prison the chance to spend positive time with their daughters also improves the mothers' mental health and helps rebuild their family support system, which is vital if they are to avoid drugs and criminal behavior once they are released from prison, organizers say.
"The program is so needed for both the girls and the moms," says Girl Scouts of the USA spokesperson Sarah Au. "There's a strong educational component for the moms, specific to parenting. We have a number of happy success stories with moms and girls living together again."
Marsha Johnson Evans, national executive director of Girl Scouts of the USA, said that the program is consistent with the organization's mission to empower young girls so they that they become strong women. Girl Scouts of the USA, which celebrates its 90th anniversary this month, has 318 local councils serving close to 3 million girls, including troops in juvenile detention centers, public housing projects and Indian reservations.
Convincing Girls to Participate Can Be Difficult
Marisa, who first became a mother at 17, had been in and out of prison several times before joining the Girl Scouts program. Two years ago, her older daughter, then 16, came to visit her in prison and announced her pregnancy.
"That just took everything out of me," Marisa says. "I was upset that she was doing the same thing as me."
Marisa's younger daughter, "Tiffany," then age 9, was struggling with problems of her own. "I was staying with my grandma and I was really mad at my mom," she says.
Visits between mother and daughter were tense and unpleasant. So when Marisa, who asked that her daughter's real name not be used for this article, learned about the Beyond Bars program, she decided to give it a try as a means to connect with Tiffany. The hard part was getting Tiffany to agree.
"I didn't want to do it," Tiffany says. "She was the one who went off and got into trouble and I didn't want to get to know her."
The girl grudgingly went along, an unwilling participant in both the meetings at the prison and the traditional troop meetings near her home. The initial group meetings did not go well. Tiffany separated herself, withdrawing to a corner to watch the happy buzz of activity from afar, refusing to participate. At the suggestion of the trained counselor working with the moms, Marisa took part in the games and activities, all the while keeping an eye on Tiffany, hoping she would join in.
"I didn't know how to do this and I felt so bad about how much I hurt her, but I couldn't find a way to explain it to her," she says.
For her part, Tiffany said that after watching how much fun her friends were having with their mothers, she reconsidered her position. Gradually, the two warmed up to each other.
"She started talking to me a little bit and I got to know her," Tiffany says of those first encounters with her mother. "Then I figured out that I was missing her a lot."
Evans says this kind of revelation is just what the program was designed to achieve.
"Girls whose moms are in prison have no opportunity for a mother-daughter relationship," she said. "It is so important for the girls to see their mothers in a different light, without a glass barrier separating them."
Ann Moline is a freelance writer in Alexandria, Va.
Girl Scouts of the USA:
The Girl Scouts Beyond Bars (GSBB) project