TROOP 1500

Girl Scouts Beyond Bars


Inmate Mothers


A prison guard tower at dusk with the prison and a barbed wire security fence in the background

A line of female prison inmates in white uniforms stand with their backs to the camera raking the prison grounds. A figure wearing a cowboy hat on horseback watches them. 

A close-up of African American female inmate in a white uniform with a fence and the prison grounds in the background. She looks to the right of the camera, not smiling.

 “There are more children with an incarcerated parent than there are children with diabetes, AIDS and cerebral palsy…combined.”
—Denise Johnson, director, Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents

The dilemmas faced by the women and their daughters in TROOP 1500 are hardly unique. Since the 1960s, the number of women in prisons has increased more than 500 percent. Nearly two-thirds of those women are parents, and nearly one in ten women admitted to prison is pregnant. At a time when prison resources are stretched thinner than ever, the notion of on-site nurseries and widespread programs for child visitation are often seen as impractical.

Kenya, a mother and inmate at the Hilltop Prison in Gatesville, Texas

A black and white close-up of a female prison inmate with her daughter, their cheeks close together; the mother is Caucasian, her long dark hair is loose; the daughter is Mulatto, her hair pulled back into braids. They look at the camera with closed-mouth smiles.
Jasmine visits with her mother Melissa at Hilltop Prison

The Human Costs

The human costs are difficult to consider. Children of prisoners are five times more likely than the average child to end up in prison themselves. Anecdotal evidence suggests that women who participate in family visitation programs are more successful in their rehabilitation. According to the trade journal Corrections Today, “Anecdotal evidence shows there are few or no infractions by inmates who participate in parenting programs followed by special family visiting programs. Contact with their children is too important to inmates.” And, of course, there are the children themselves: deprived of parental contact through no fault of their own.

For much of the 20th century, the practice of separating imprisoned mothers from their children varied from state to state, as well as facility to facility. The first prison nursery opened in the United States in 1901, at the New York State Reformatory for Women in Bedford Hills. Children born there were kept with their mothers until their first birthday (or longer, if the mother was scheduled for release within 18 months). The program continues today, and more than a century later serves as a model for other correctional institutions adopting such programs. Still, only three states (New York, Washington and Nebraska) have the 18-month program; others allow the child to stay for shorter durations, or not at all.

With such wide disparities in the treatment of incarcerated mothers, much depends on the luck of the draw as to where a woman is housed. In 2003, for instance, overcrowding in the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Alabama led to hundreds of female inmates being bussed to prisons in Louisiana and elsewhere, severing the bonds between the women and their children.

Their situation is not uncommon. According to statistics from the Women’s Prison Association, 50 percent of incarcerated mothers are kept in prisons more than 100 miles from their children, and nearly 40 percent of them will never receive a prison visit from their children.

The effects of parental separation on children, often compounded by being shuttled from caregiver to caregiver, can be devastating and can increase the child’s likelihood to land in jail themselves.

Making Up The Differences

Other groups have stepped in to heal the breaches between inmates and their children, with programs that include halfway houses, alternative sentencing, in-prison nurseries and formal visitation programs that attempt to ease the prison milieu for the visiting children.

One of the most famous outreach programs is Girl Scouts Beyond Bars, which attempts to provide regular visits for Scouts and their incarcerated parents. A $2 million Congressional grant for various Girl Scout programs, including Behind Bars, has allowed the concept to expand to approximately 30 troops in states across the nation.

Learn about the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program >>

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