JESSUP — Mothers and daughters stand in a circle, slowly reciting the Girl Scout pledge.
They promise to be cheerful, to respect authority, to help others and to obey the Girl Scout laws.
The start of a typical Girl Scout meeting.
Except that it’s occurring in the gymnasium at the Maryland Incarceration Center for Women in Jessup. Except that the mothers at this meeting all are in prison for crimes ranging from petty theft to murder.
The girls and mothers are part of Troop 2140 — the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars Program, a Maryland experiment that spawned 15 copies in as many states.
The program, a partnership between the Girl Scouts Council of Maryland and the National Institute of Justice, aims to give mothers and daughters a chance to spend quality time together so they can break the intergenerational cycle of families going to prison, said Lisa Cid, executive director of the Girl Scout Council of Maryland.
“While the mothers are imprisoned they have time to think about their role as a parent,” Cid said.
“Kids see their mothers in a safe environment and more frequently than they would without the program. When kids used to visit their mothers, the mother would talk mostly to the adults. They didn’t have anything to say [to their daughters]. Now the daughters call them more and write more,” she said.
J.J., of Calvert County, who declined to give her last name or reason for incarceration, sees the program as a way for her to bond with her two daughters, Kimberly and Stephanie, ages 9 and 6.
“It gives me time alone with them without outside interference, I can answer questions about anything they have concerns about,” J.J. said.
The girls also get an opportunity to see what life is like for their mothers inside prison.
“They realize I’m okay and it makes them feel better,” J.J. said.
Girl Scouts Beyond Bars was the brainchild of Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Carol E. Smith, who realized children whose parents are incarcerated “become the victims of their parents’ crimes.”
With help from Melanie C. Pereira, deputy commissioner for the Maryland Division of Correction, and a one-time grant from the National Institute of Justice, the program began in November 1992.
So twice per month, girls, most of whom live in Baltimore City, visit their moms. On other Saturdays, they meet at Corpus Christi Church in Bolton Hill for troop activities.
Before their mothers were jailed, none of these girls had been a Scout. Now they rise through the ranks from Brownies to Cadets, developing positive relationships with their Scout leaders.
When their mothers get out of prison, the girls are encouraged to join another troop so they may continue their Girl Scout experience.
“We try to expose them to a larger world than they would have normally been able to experience,” Cid said.
Being a Girl Scout enhances the girls’ self-esteem, said Marina Gethers, project coordinator.
“They have plans now, they have a future. They can be whatever they want to be,” Gethers said.
The mothers in the program say they are grateful for an opportunity to develop better relationships with their fellow inmates.
Priscilla, of Baltimore City, who also declined to give her reason for incarceration, said she “relates better” to the other mothers in the program than to inmates who are not in the program.
“This is a little bond that helps keep us together,” she said.
It’s a sisterhood to them, said Sgt. Sandy Johnson, who oversees the program for the prison.
“When they see each other in the hallway they say, `Hey Scout.’ This program is their space and they’re fiercely protective of it,” Johnson said.
Whether the program actually is effective in reducing recidivism and intergenerational incarceration has yet to be studied.
But by encouraging regular visits, the program reduces mothers’ stress of worrying about their daughters and daughters’ sadness about their mothers’ incarceration, said Kathleen Block, associate professor of criminology at the University of Baltimore, who in 1994 received a two-year grant to study the program.
Block, who just finished and published her work, studied the program’s effects on mother-daughter relationships, on separation stress and on quality and quantity of mother-daughter visits. “The program helps to maintain the basic relationship between mother and daughter in a setting where otherwise it would be very difficult to have regular contact and be a part of each others’ lives,” Block said. -30-