Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Troop 1500: Girl Scouts Beyond Bars

Troop 1500: Girl Scouts Beyond Bars is an excellent documentary about women in prison and their daughters.

Once a month the troop drives to the Hilltop Unit, a women's prison about an hour from Austin, TX, where the girls get to spend the afternoon with their mothers, assisted by the troop leaders/social workers. The Girl Scouts are equipped with camera, and one of their major projects is to interview their mothers, and record other aspects of their lives.

Troop 1500 is a real Girl Scout troop designed as "an intervention" for girls whose mothers are imprisoned in Texas for typical crimes: drug dealing, drug possession, aggravated assault, robbery. The troop has to address the intense emotions that surround prison visits. The joy and the anger.

Some mothers have been to prison several times. Over time, the parole hearings for the mothers get closer and closer, and the intense question is which moms will be released. And if released, will they be able to stay clean and out of trouble. One mother, in her interview with her daughter, notes that with her record, if she screws up, she is sure to go back to prison with a life sentence. You see her daughter's face as she says this.

The girls learn that one mother has been kicked out of the program, even though her daughter stays in it. We learned the mother is writing a book about her life. But she has asked volunteers for money to buy a typewriter and supplies. The institution examines her prison account which shows that she used the money to buy candy and they charge her with extortion. She gets two more years added to her sentence.

In another case, a daughter's caregiver has got a job in Colorado, and she is leaving her mom in prison and her friends in the troop behind.

One mother is not realistically going to see parole any time soon. She was a nurse, married with three children. She admits that she euthanized an elderly patient which she thought was a kindness at the time. She was sentenced to 50 years. She won't be eligible for parole until 25 years have passed. Yet her daughter keeps visiting her. At one point, the daughter brings a DVD with home movies of the mom as a child and speaking as her school valedictorian, and other movies of the girl and her siblings as infants and toddlers. She is not a drug user, a robber, but a healer who made a tragic mistake of compassion.

Some of the mothers talk about their lives -- drinking and using drugs at a very early age, or having children when they are very young. One mom was a crack dealer. She wonders what her life can be like after release if she is only earning a few hundred dollars a week, when that sum was her earnings for a few minutes during her criminal career. Another mom graduated from shoplifting to armed robbery to buy drugs.

The warden of the prison has reservations about the Girl Scouts. She fears that the girls will not see prison as the horror that it is. She talks about the selfish choices the mothers made.

The interviews and the prison visits are interspersed with the ordinary activities of the daughters as Girl Scouts -- going to camp, canoeing, making projects, playing, singing Girl Scout songs. These are lovely girls.

Very powerfully the movie makes clear that some of the mothers were profoundly self-centered. One mother took her young daughter along on her drug deals. One mother notes how every mother worries that others might hurt their children and observes how her crimes and her imprisonment have hurt her children far more than anyone else ever did or could.

My daughter is in Girl Scout Troop 4334. I've escorted her on her cookie sales for three winters. Last year, I helped to lead a canoe trip for the troop, teaching paddling techniques. Two days ago, on June 2, I led a hike for Troop 4334. We walked from their school into Rock Creek Park's urban forest and then along the creek. We were on our way to the troops' Flying Up ceremony in which Brownies become junior Girl Scouts at "Candy Cane City."

We stopped along the creek bank so the girls could throw rocks across the stream and into the water. At one point, I answered a question about what a sandbar was and how a sandbar is formed. We heard birds singing to mark their territory. Of course, we were on the lookout for poison ivy. The girls are just like the girls in Troop 1500, except that the girls in Troop 1500 are uniformly poor.

On Monday, our troop leader made a lovely speech marking the Flying Up, and noting how she could see one of our girls as a U.S. Senator or another girl as Member of Congress (goals you get when you live 7 miles from the Capitol).

The girls in Troop 1500 are great kids -- wise for their years, playful, compassionate. You see them brimming with potential and responding to love and nurture. And as you watch the girls and their mothers, you have to wonder, does our society have the right ideas about what to do about crime? Are the right ideas being applied in our prisons? Does our correctional system make sense for American families? Who is benefiting from our correctional system, and in what ways?

Sphere: Related Content

No comments: