Scouting behind bars

Program brings imprisoned mothers, kids together

March 05, 2006|By LAURA BARNHARDT | LAURA BARNHARDT,SUN REPORTER

The members of Girl Scout Troop 7140 lined up at the prison's metal detector, eager to start their meeting.

After a security officer patted their jackets, a few of the girls ran toward the locked front door. They knew the way, past the razor wire and dining halls to the gym.

For some Scouts, a prison visit would be part of a field trip or community service project. But for Troop 7140, Maryland Correctional Institution for Women is their regular meeting place.

Every other Saturday, they come to the Jessup facility, where their mothers are serving sentences ranging from several years to life in prison. Despite the prison uniforms and restricted movement, the weekly troop meeting begins like most do, with the girls and mothers forming a "friendship circle" and saying the Girl Scout pledge. They do crafts and have snacks. But what the mothers and daughters say they most look forward to is the time to sit and talk and hug.

"Look at me, Mom!" called out Jenene Brown's 7-year-old daughter, Justice, before turning a cartwheel yesterday.

"You did great. Do another flip for me," her mother replied.

Soon, Justice was in her mom's lap, playfully snapping at her nose. "It's what you do to me," Justice said, laughing.

Brown is a 28-year-old former debt collector from West Baltimore who was sentenced to life in prison with all but 20 years suspended for murder. She is the troop's photographer.

When it comes her turn to lead the meeting, Brown is planning to have the girls and their moms create scrapbooks for Mother's Day.

Brown said she never thought she'd be leading arts and crafts for a Girl Scout troop, but she said, "I just want us to have our bond."

Troop 7140 has 17 girls and 13 mothers, all of whom are incarcerated. Once a month, they meet with Troop 7856, a group of 22 Scouts and 14 mothers who are finishing sentences at the Pre-Release Unit for Women in the city, said Margaret Chippendale who was in charge of the prerelease center before taking a job with the Girl Scouts of Central Maryland that includes supervising these two troops.

When they're together, the troops, which meet at a church, focus on more traditional Scout activities, such as learning about animals and earning badges, Chippendale said.

The Scouts range in age from 6 to 17 years old. "Trying to find a program that will keep the attention of a 6-year-old and a 15-year- old isn't easy," Chippendale said.

Yesterday, the Scouts were entertained by Maria Broom, an actress, dancer and former WJZ- TV reporter. One minute, Broom led the group shimmying across the floor; the next, they were clapping to salsa music. During breaks between songs, Broom had the group hold their hands to their heart and then "send out love."

"I was a Girl Scout and a Brownie," said Broom, who plays Marla Daniels on the HBO series The Wire. "When I heard about this program, I said, `I'm there.' I think it was because it's mothers and daughters."

The Girl Scouts Behind Bars program was started in 1992 in Maryland by Melanie C. Pereira, former warden of the Correctional Institution for Women, as a pilot project between Girl Scouts and the National Institute of Justice. The program has since been adopted in prisons from Florida to Texas.

A documentary about a Texas-prison based troop, called Troop 1500, will be shown March 12 at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

"Were it not for this program, a lot of these moms wouldn't see their daughters," Chippendale said. "It's their chance to watch their daughters grow up."

For Cassandra Stukes, Girl Scouts is the only way she gets to see her 12-year-old daughter, Pierrerea. Stukes' mother takes care of her seven children, including her 1-year-old son, who was 5 days old when she was arrested on drug charges.

Pierrerea "always wanted to join the Girl Scouts," said Stukes, 35, of West Baltimore. "But when I was using drugs, there was never time to register."

When she learned about the prison troop, Stukes couldn't wait to join. "I look so forward to seeing her. ... When they come through that door, and you see their face, there's nothing like it."

She still misses saying bedtime prayers with her daughter and snuggling up to watch scary movies, but Stokes said she's appreciative of the time she spends with Pierrerea on Saturdays.

Nina Newsome, a 42-year-old West Baltimore woman serving an 8 1/2 -year sentence for drug convictions, also enjoys the time with her 7-year-old and 13-year- old daughters.

Their talks vary, said Newsome, a mother of eight. "I don't like what [the 13-year-old] is wearing today. She might say something about my hair," Newsome said. "You know, mother-daughter stuff."

Until the meeting around Christmas, when the troop made cards for soldiers and for victims of Hurricane Katrina, Newsome said she didn't know her 13- year-old could draw because they'd never done that kind of craft. "She can draw really good," Newsome said.

"Girl Scouts are for every girl, everywhere," said Danita Terry, a spokeswoman for the Girl Scouts of Central Maryland. "I think it's important that they just have this time to call out, `Mommy!' and have their moms answer. I know that sounds simplistic, but it's very meaningful. They need this attention from their mothers.

"One girl recently spent a meeting sitting on her mom's lap," Terry said. "She didn't move the entire time. That's just wanted she needed - to be in her mom's arms."

laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com

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