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New program at women's prison benefits mothers and children.

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. They do everything from coordinating transportation, making home visits to those without telephone service and escorting the children to the MCIW meetings to organizing the community troop meetings and working with the mothers."

Volunteer Cecilia Tolano's experience has given her a deeper understanding of the children and their needs. "Working with these children has been very rewarding," she says. "Most of the time they seem like |normal' kids, but I am frequently reminded by something they say or do that indicates how much disappointment they have endured and how many |normal' childhood experiences they have missed out on."

"The Girl Scout program couldn't have come at a better time," Pereira says. "We had just suffered a severe cutback in inmate services due to our state's budgetary shortfall."

The program offers a lot in return for the relatively small outlay of funds required. The operating budget for this pilot troop is about $20,000 a year, with transportation expenses accounting for half the annual expense. Included in that sum are Girl Scout uniforms, accident insurance, activity supplies, instructional consultant fees and other miscellaneous expenses.

When GSCM initially took on the project, Girl Scout Council funds and volunteer contributions were used to offset initial troop expenses. A subsequent grant from the National Institute of Justice has partially offset the ongoing costs.

The mothers also have assumed some financial responsibility for their daughters' troop. MCIW women have bought more than 550 boxes of Girl Scout cookies from their daughters, raising almost $1,400.

An added program benefit is the self-sufficiency the girls are learning under the volunteers' tutelage. As a part of one project, they expected to raise a sizable sum by managing a food concession stand at Baltimore City's annual Artscape Weekend July 23-25.

An NIJ Concept

The genesis of the project was a call to NIJ from Maryland District Court Judge Carol E. Smith. Aware that more than 80 percent of the women at MCIW are mothers, she contacted the Institute for help developing a parent-child visitation program at MCIW. NIJ staff came up with the idea of the Girl Scout/prison partnership and worked with prison officials to get the program up and running.

"Once NIJ educated me about the desperate need, the only question for me was how soon we could get started," says Barbara Minnis, who was GSCM's acting executive director at the time.

With the program's success, correctional administrators from a number of other states have expressed strong interest in adopting the NIJ/Girl Scout model. NIJ is now preparing a manual explaining how to set up a similar program and is planning several workshops for correctional and Girl Scout council administrators, as well as foundation executives interested in providing seed funding to these projects.

"Parental confinement has a terrible impact on families," Judge Smith says. "Children, in particular, suffer unique hardships when their mothers are imprisoned. They, too, become victims of their parents' crimes. The children, mothers and society can only benefit from a program such as this that promotes positive values, healthy interactions, parenting skills, self-esteem and decision making."


Bloom, Barbara. 1992. Why punish the children? A reassessment of the impact of incarceration on the children of women prisoners. Paper presented at ACA 122nd Congress. Hairston, C.F. Spring 1991. Family ties during imprisonment: Important to whom and for what? The Prison Journal. 37-39. Jose-Kampfner, Christina. August 1991. Michigan program makes children's visits meaningful. Corrections Today. 132-34. Koban, L.A. 1983. Parents in prison: A comparative analysis of the effects of incarceration on the families of men and women. Research in Law, Deviance and Social Control. 5:171-83. Lowenstein, A. 1986. Temporary single parenthood: The case of prisoners' families. Family Relations. 35:79-85. Sack, W.H., J. Seidler and S. Thomas. 1976. The children of imprisoned parents: A psychosocial exploration. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. 46:618-28. Stanton, S. 1980. When Mothers Go to Jail. Lexington, Mass. D.C. Heath.

A Mother's View of the Program

"I have been incarcerated for four years. This gives me a chance to renew a bond with my daughter. Before the Girl Scouts, I only saw her about three or four times a year.

"The first time I went to jail my family lied to my daughter about where I was. They told her that I was in the hospital. I went along with it because I really didn't want her to know where I was.

"Then my daughter started pretending like she was sick. My family took her to the emergency room a few times. When she got there she would ask the doctors in the hospital if they would let her visit me. When the family realized what was up, they stopped bringing her to the hospital. I am not lying to her this time.

"In the second meeting, we started talking about the Girl Scout promise and law. [The first time I was incarcerated], I promised her mommy would never go away again. I broke that promise to her and she hasn't forgotten it. She asked me during the Girl Scout promise meeting whether I was going to keep my promise this time. I am going to try.

"Maybe with the Girl Scouts' help, I can start to keep some promises to her in this programi-like showing up each time for the meetings and doing the activities with her. Maybe she will start to believe in me again."
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Author:Moses, Marilyn C.
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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