Women inmates take Girl Scout pledge Prison troop binds moms, daughters

April 18, 1993|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Staff Writer

Donnetta Brown entered a Jessup prison last year for a drug conviction. She will leave next month -- as a Girl Scout.

Ms. Brown and her 5-year-old daughter are among 17 inmates and 24 children taking part in a pilot program that set up a Girl Scout troop inside prison walls at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women.

The Girl Scout program is intended to be a motivating force for offenders, and break what correctional officials see as a cycle of criminal conduct continuing from generation to generation.

State officials held a news conference in the Jessup prison yesterday to announce the receipt of a $15,000 federal grant to help fund, and perhaps expand, the 6-month-old program, and prepare a report that will help other states adopt the idea.

The program aims to break the cycle in which one generation after another in some families spends time in prison, said Marilyn Moses, who works with the National Institute of Justice, part of the U.S. Department of Justice. She said for every one woman behind bars, three children are directly affected.

"I've seen the cycle of families coming through this facility," said Melanie Pereira, deputy commissioner for the Maryland Division of Correction and the former warden for the Jessup prison. "I've seen three generations here -- grandmother, mother and daughter."

Two Saturdays each month at the prison, inmate mothers take part in a troop meeting with their daughters, ages 5 to 14.

Lisa Cid, executive director for Girl Scouts of Central Maryland, said the only time the girls got to see their mothers before was during regular visiting hours, and that the environment proved frightening for some of them.

"When children don't know, they fantasize," Ms. Cid said. "They created an image of what happened to mommy -- and some of those pictures were horrible. They envisioned their mothers in chains."

Prison officials said about 80 percent of the 785 women inmates have children.

Most of the youngsters are staying with other family members or friends, because there is no father at home.

"Women suffer a special kind of double punishment where the sole parent is separated from the child," said Baltimore District Judge Carol E. Smith, who came up with the Girl Scouts idea and contacted the Central Maryland organization.

Inside the prison library yesterday, seven mothers and their daughters gathered around Monique Wilson, a 22-year-old senior Morgan State University who was on her last day of leading the troop for a class assignment.

"What do you like about the Girl Scouts?" she asked the children.

"Arts and crafts," one child shouted.

"I like to see my mother," another said.

"That's the answer I was looking for," Ms. Wilson shouted, proceeding to lead the group in the scouting pledge.

Donnetta Brown said her daughter asked her a few months ago if she would ever go back to prison.

"That's quite a question for a 5-year-old to ask a 28-year-old adult," Ms. Brown said yesterday.

"We get to draw, color and talk," said Ms. Brown, who is from Baltimore City. "I see my daughter smiling more than frowning now. I'm not going to use [drugs] anymore, because drugs made me a monster."

Ms. Brown said she grew apart from her daughter after the first few months in prison.

"Now we experience things together," she said. "I have grown a lot since I was using drugs."

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