By Ananda Shorey
JESSUP – Nine Girl Scouts, in unison with their mothers, pledged to respect authority, be honest, fair and responsible for their actions, and to make the world a better place — from behind the walls of a prison.
The scouts of Troop 7140-7142 were at the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women in Jessup on a recent Saturday to visit their mothers, who are serving time for crimes ranging from theft to murder.
“It is a way for mothers to still be mothers,” said Vera Banton, 39, a pre-release inmate. “Sometimes we think the kids are doing OK, but they’re not.”
The Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program started with the Central Maryland troop in 1992. The program was created by the National Institute of Justice to give imprisoned moms a chance to be involved in their daughters’ lives and to keep the scouts from following in their mothers’ footsteps.
The program also promotes good behavior among the inmates: In order to participate, they cannot break any rules for six months and they cannot have a history of child abuse.
“It motivates us to a degree where a simple visit wouldn’t,” said Denise Dodson, 35, who is a maximum-security inmate at Jessup.
The scouts, who range in age from 5 to 17, join their mothers two Saturdays a month for a two-hour meeting in the prison gym. On alternate Saturdays, the scouts meet at a Baltimore church where volunteers help them work on projects.
Besides electrical gates, lookout towers, razor-wire fences and endless metal detectors, the prison scout meeting was similar to any other.
The mothers and daughters hugged and chatted for a few minutes, then formed a circle, raised three fingers on their right hands and began reciting the Girl Scout pledge: “On my honor I will try to serve God and my country, to help people at all times, and to live by the Girl Scout law…”
After the pledge, the girls shared their report card grades. Each good grade was met with loud cheers and clapping and every bad grade was met with cheers and motivational words between the claps.
“That’s all right, that’s all right,” Banton said to a scout who had several low grades. “You’ll do better next time.”
After the girls shared their grades, a couple of Tinsey Johnson’s five daughters whizzed around the gym in a game of tag. Her daughter Ashley, 7, who wore multicolored Hello Kitty barrettes, said that she loves playing tag, but her favorite part of the program is snack time.
Church music soon started echoing off the gym walls, as Dodson manned the stereo, and two moms and six scouts promptly lined up to practice their dance routine for Volunteer Appreciation Day. They grinned ear to ear, their arms swaying and their feet swiftly stomping up and down as they chanted, “When I say Jesus, you say Christ…”
As the girls danced, Banton explained how the program has strengthened her relationship with her daughter.
“Do you see how happy she is dancing?” Banton asked. “She’s not trying to look all hoochie-mama, or whatever they call it out there. She’s a young lady, and I like that.”
The group fell to the floor giggling at the end of the dance. After a brief rest, the girls lined up and took turns reciting African-American poetry from the book, “I, Too, Sing America.” While several scouts recited their lines quietly, others passionately shouted their parts and added strong hand gestures and facial expressions.
When they were finished, everyone headed to a long cafeteria-style table where snacks had been laid out by Marina Gethers, project leader for the program. Banton said Gethers makes an effort of bringing food they normally cannot get in the prison, like sour-cream-and-onion potato chips.
Gethers said the girls need to know that they do not have to end up in prison like their mothers — which often happens — and the program lets the scouts realize that they can make positive choices in their lives.
“I look at it as planting a seed in the girls’ lives,” Gethers said.
The mothers also have a monthly one-hour group meeting with a licensed social worker, who gives them additional assistance with their parenting skills.
“There is nothing in this world that you can’t conquer,” Department of Corrections Lt. Sandy Johnson told the inmates before they met with their daughters. “You can always be a friend, but be a mother.”
Banton, who has been incarcerated for over eight years, said she tries to be the best mother she can be from the inside. But she realizes that since she has missed such a large part of her children’s lives she can only take the parent role to a certain extent.
“Like a flower, my kids have sprung out and bloomed,” Banton said. “I am not going to try and change their lives.”