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Beyond Bars: Special Girl Scout troop helps young women connect with their mothers in prison

Their mothers may be convicted prostitutes, thieves, murderers and drug dealers, but the girls of Girl Scout Troop 1500 want to be doctors, lawyers, veterinarians, social workers and marine biologists.

Working to break the cycle of crime within families and make these dreams come true are the Lone Star Girl Scout Council, The University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work, the Crime Prevention Institute and the YWCA.

Dr. Darlene Grant is surrounded by girls of Troop 1500
Dr. Darlene Grant, of the university’s School of Social Work, is surrounded by girls of Troop 1500.

“Current estimates indicate that 1.3 to 1.5 million children in the United States have an incarcerated parent,” said Dr. Darlene Grant, associate professor of social work and associate dean of graduate studies at the university. “These vulnerable children face unique difficulties and their growing numbers and special needs demand attention.”

Austin’s Enterprising Girl Scouts Beyond Bars Troop 1500 was established in 1998 using a Maryland venture as a model for a visiting program for women in prison and their daughters. There are more than 30 such programs in the country and only two in Texas.

Troop 1500 will be the subject of a PBS documentary by Ellen Spiro of the College of Communication to air next year.

“Despite the fact that they are in prison, mothers are still important influences in these girls’ lives,” said Grant, who has been evaluator of Troop 1500 since its inception. “But bonds have been broken, and the program works to rebuild the relationships.

“I think the biggest fear for most mothers in prison is that their child will also end up there.”

There are 45 girls, ranging in age from 6 to 17, registered in Troop 1500. When mothers get out of prison, their girls become “alumni” and most still attend select meetings acting as big sisters, said Julia Cuba, troop leader and coordinator. Now a graduate student in the School of Social Work, Cuba was hired by the Girl Scouts to help start the Beyond Bars program in Austin.

Troop leader and coordinator Julia Cuba listens to Girl Scouts
Troop Leader and coordinator Julia Cuba (far right) listens to Girl Scouts in Troop 1500.

According to research conducted by Grant, the number of female prison inmates has skyrocketed since 1980 and 80 percent of women in prison have daughters. Ninety percent of these women are single parents and two-thirds of women in prison in the U.S. are women of color.

Their daughters are six times more likely to land in the juvenile justice system than children whose parents have not been in jail, Grant said.

These at-risk adolescent girls have identity and self-esteem issues as well as the need to work through anger they may feel at being abandoned. Giving women in prison the chance to spend time with their daughters also helps the mothers. The warden at Gatesville Hilltop Prison (90 miles northeast of Austin) reports that the behavior of the women involved in the program has improved.

The girls of local Troop 1500 sell cookies in February and occasionally go on camp outs, but this is where similarities to other Girl Scout troops end.

The troop meets three times a month. A licensed therapist from the YWCA conducts group therapy at a meeting held at the School of Social Work the second Wednesday of the month.

The girls’ big excursion together is a once-a-month trip to Gatesville to visit their mothers in prison. The mothers and daughters share a meal, do each other’s nails, sometimes have a facial and generally catch up. Then, they get down to the real business at hand: team building, literacy curriculum, decision-making curriculum, communication-building skills work, life skills activities and group therapy.

“There’s a lot of hugging, kissing and tears,” said Grant. “The girls crave the love of a mother that other family members might berate.

Ellen Spiro works on her documentary of Troop 1500 by interviewing the mothers at the women's prison in Gatesville
Ellen Spiro’s documentary on Troop 1500 is being filmed at the women’s prison in Gatesville.
Photo courtesy Ellen Spiro

“I worry about how society vilifies these women and especially how that affects the girls,” she said.

Since the drop-out rate for adolescents with incarcerated parents is high, the program also teaches the girls about the importance of staying in school and also how to avoid early pregnancy and lessons in substance abuse prevention.

“And social skills—like not yelling at potential Girl Scout cookie customers!” said Grant.

“We want to make sure these girls get all the resources they need to stay out of prison themselves,” said Cuba. “Prison wrecks your life. It taints records, closes doors to career building and acts as a substitute for a much needed mental health system in Texas.”

Statistics for Troop 1500 are encouraging: 96 percent of the 45 girls have not been pregnant before the age of 18; 93 percent have not dropped out of school and 100 percent have not been arrested.

The Beyond Bars program also provides support to guardians (grandmothers and other relatives) who are caring for the daughters. And, it helps prepare and support mothers in making the difficult transition from prison to the outside world—on that day she is given $50 and a set of street clothes and released.

Troop 1500 caught the attention of Spiro, an award-winning film producer from the university, who is directing the PBS documentary. Her films, including “Diana’s Hair Ego,” “Roam Sweet Home” and “Atomic Ed and the Black Hole,” have been broadcast nationally and around the world.

Spiro is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, and she has won two Rockefeller Fellowships for her films. Karen Bernstein, who won a national prime time Emmy Award for “Ella Fitzgerald—Something to Live For,” is producing the documentary.

One of the girls in Troop 1500 uses a video camera to interview her mother
For the documentary, girls interview their own mothers.
Photo courtesy Ellen Spiro

The girls are not only the subjects of the film, “Troop 1500—Girl Scouts Beyond Bars,” but also work as crew members. The documentary is funded by the Texas Council on the Humanities and PBS and is scheduled to air in 2005.

Grant and Cuba are writing a companion book for the film.

“I began my involvement with the troop as a volunteer,” said Spiro. She then started conducting media workshops with the girls—training them to use cameras and editing systems “so they could understand, in a hands-on way, the power of media representation.

“They are now empowered by the process and are currently taking active roles in the production as cinematographers and interviewers,” said Spiro.

The girls, in fact, are conducting interviews with their own mothers, which has been a transforming experience, Spiro added.

“Rather than being the mere subject of the camera’s gaze,” she said, “they are using the cameras in ways that give them the power to ask really difficult questions of their mothers.

“The mothers, on the other hand, have been amazingly receptive to the process and seem to want the opportunity to share honest and serious concerns with their daughters.”

In a promotional trailer for the documentary, the girls ask their mothers questions like: “Why did you start selling drugs again after you had spent time in jail?” “Do you think you’ll be better when you get out?” “What did you think the first night you were in prison?” “Were you around drugs when you were little?”

Comments by mothers are equally poignant. “She was six years old when I was locked up, and it probably turned her world up side down,” said one woman, who is serving a life sentence for euthanasia.

Girls of Troop 1500 make masks at a recent troop meeting
At a recent meeting, girls learned how to make masks from guest artist Benné Rockett.

“It doesn’t mean you can’t be a mother or parent because you are locked behind bars,” said another woman serving time for organized crime activities. “I think the only way you stop being a parent is when you are dead and six feet under.”

The only problem with this program is that there are not more of them, said Spiro. “But resources are slim and we hope that our documentary will change that and help it grow.

“Girls are not only learning how to build relationships with their moms, but also learning how their mothers made bad choices and how they can make different choices.”

Most of the stories are heart wrenching. One girl’s mother has been in prison five different times. Another 14-year-old girl’s grandmother became ill and went into a coma. The girl had to move in with an abusive cousin—who would not give the girl her medication—and she reacted with severe depression and anger, Cuba said.

“It didn’t help that when we went to visit the mother at Gatesville, she turned to her daughter and said, ‘I got to get pregnant again so I can have me a pretty one!’

“The girl cried the whole way home and tried to commit suicide several times that year,” Cuba said.

She desperately needs the support of a consistent, loving family and friend network, Cuba added.

“She is slowly building that at a new home with a different cousin,” she said, adding that troop leaders and mentors have increased the amount of attention they are giving the girl, and she has been given leadership roles within the troop to build her self-esteem.

Some of the girls of Troop 1500 braid Darlene Grant's hair
Darlene Grant gets her hair braided by girls of Troop 1500.

“Her grades are good, she has lost weight from eating better and exercising, and she reads a book a week,” said Cuba. “Her education will save her life.”

In addition to therapy at the Wednesday evening meetings, the troop is often treated to guest lecturers and themed parties. On one occasion, the girls heard from a self-defense instructor and at a recent meeting, local guest artist Benné Rockett from IDEA Gallery helped the girls make masks. These will be part of an exhibit at the gallery, at 701 Tillery St., on May 8.

Members of the Austin Junior League became volunteers for the troop this year and attend meetings and go on the Gatesville trips.

“They are also acting as mentors, and I think the volunteers and the girls have learned a lot from one another about people from different walks of life,” said Cuba, adding that many social work students also volunteer to work with the girls.

In addition to the prison visit, the girls take other field trips once a month—sometimes back to the university where they interact with college students.

“We challenge the girls to meet new students and find out what they are studying, what classes they like and dislike and what they plan to do with their degrees,” Cuba said. “These kinds of interactions familiarize the girls with higher education opportunities and let them see the diverse group of people who are striving for careers and why.

“The hope is the more they are exposed to higher learning, the more natural the idea will be in their lives.”

Nancy Neff

Photos: Marsha Miller

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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