Girl Scouts Program Helps Girls with Mothers in Prison

Girl Scout Troop 1500 does all the usual things: Sells cookies, goes on camping trips, and earns merit badges. But once a month the troop, which is based in Austin, Texas, does something out of the ordinary: The girls take an hour-long trip to Hilltop Prison in Gatesville, so the troop members can visit their mothers behind bars.

The unusual program, Girl Scouts Beyond Bars, which exists in 30 states around the country, was the brainchild of a troop leader in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1992, who noticed a need for girls with mothers who had been jailed. The Girl Scouts reached out to the Department of Justice, which in 2003 began providing funding for that program, along with Girl Scouting in Detention Centers.

Christine Brongniart, the Girl Scouts program manager for the two efforts, agreed the program is "a far cry from cookies and crafts." She noted that all the programs from the Girl Scouts, since its origin 100 years ago, "come from a recognition of communal need."

The addition of the Beyond Bars program, said Brongniart, is to "deter girls to make decisions that would land them in prison. To stop the cycle." Both programs have served about 15,000 girls affected by the criminal justice system. Brongniart noted that the Beyond Bars program doesn't just act as a visitation program. It also focuses on developing the mother-daughter bond.

The program was documented in the award-winning PBS film "Troop 1500," directed by Ellen Spiro and Karen Bernstein. The two volunteered with the troop for two years before they got permission to film. Meanwhile, the filmmakers taught the girls how to use the cameras themselves, so when filming began, as seen in the clip, the girls took charge of interviewing their own mothers.

More than 1.5 million children have a parent behind bars, according to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, and 75% of all incarcerated women are also mothers, many of them single. Said Spiro, "These kids aren't in control of their situations. There are all these children who are essentially being punished for crimes that they did not commit."

The Beyond Bars program seeks to change that. The documentary, released in 2005, has served as a training tool for troops around the country that seek to start their own Beyond Bars program.

The research on the long-term success rates of the program is not yet clear. But for the girls featured in the film, at least, all except one have stayed out of prison. All the mothers except one are back behind bars.

Spiro has stayed in touch with the film's mothers and daughters -- now young women as old as 20 -- and is currently at work on a sequel.

The Department of Justice grants, which have helped fuel the programs' growth, are about to end. The Beyond Bars troops will continue through private funding, but the efforts will most likely be scaled back.

To donate to the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program, go to the Girl Scouts website, and write in "GSBB" in the additional information section. Or, give directly to a hosting Girl Scout council.