JESSUP, Md. (AP) — Ayona Hall nudges her face against her mother’s shoulder.
Monnek Hall, 32, picks up a pair of clippers to trim the 13-year-old’s nails and tweezers for her cuticles while they listen to the troop leader during a Girl Scouts meeting at the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women on Feb. 1.
A no-frills manicure was reason for them to touch. And while many teens flinch away from parental affection, Ayona doesn’t want to let go of her mother’s hand, ever.
“I miss special time, like having a girl’s day out,” Ayona said.
Hall misses that, too. She longs to tuck her little girl and her twin, Avaya, into bed, cuddle next to them, watch them sleep like she used to when they were young.
For now, this is the most she can give: a couple of hours every other Saturday. But it means so much more to both than badges and cookies.
“The world,” Hall said. “It’s everything.”
Girl Scouts have met at the prison for 22 years. Two days per month, two troops comprised of 19 offenders’ daughters are shuttled to the Jessup facility to bond with their mothers. Twenty-three girls say the Scout’s pledge and sell Thin Mints just like any other troop.
The troops began as a partnership between the National Institute of Justice and the Girl Scouts of Central Maryland in 1992. The initiative was intended to keep the inmates’ relationships with their daughters intact and break the cycle of crime. Today, several detention facilities nationwide have duplicated the program known as Girl Scouts Beyond Bars.
“It gives daughters a chance to know their moms,” said Ava-Lisa Macon, a volunteer scout leader from Catonsville. “I see the difference it makes.”
As much as the program tries to offer children a normal experience, some rituals come as a shock to the uninitiated.
The Scouts walk through a metal detector before heading to the gymnasium. They turn facing away from a security guard and put their hands in the air while she pats them down. Even the youngest, a 7-year-old Daisy, knows the drill.
Then they waited for the electrified fence to open.
Some of the moms wore gray sweat suits, the standard-issue uniform. Others who have some personal clothing dressed in jeans and T-shirts.
They begin with a friendship circle. Then they applaud Alexis Jones, 15, for making an A in chemistry. She wants to be a petroleum engineer.
Her 32-year-old mother, Shalonne Jones, who has a 5 1/2-year sentence for felony forgery, wants to be a beautician. She’ll be eligible for release this year.
“You should be a nurse,” Alexis said.
Jones shot back a “no” with a look that could only mean, “I’m the mother.” She plans to move to Pennsylvania, where Alexis lives with her grandparents, so her daughter can graduate from the high school she’s attending. She looks forward to hearing Alexis play the trumpet in marching band.
The two troops split up in the gym for their programs. One did African-American women trivia for Black History Month; the other did a blindfolded trust exercise with mother-and-daughter teams leading each other through an obstacle course.
One mother leaned to whisper in her daughter’s ear she should wear her hair like another Scout — straightened in a bob.
“What are you moving away for? I was telling you a secret,” the mother said.
When a security guard walked by, the mother waved hello at her.
“That’s my mini me!” she shouted, pointing to her daughter.
Troop leader Andrea Warren asked the girls to name a woman of color who she considers a role model.
Ayona said her mother in a half-whisper.
“Because she loves me with all her heart, and she leads me in the right direction,” she said.
That was music to Hall’s ears, who has been incarcerated since 2008 for assault. She has enrolled in Goucher College courses at the prison to earn a bachelor’s degree in sociology. She wants to be a social worker.
“I try to be as real with my daughters as I can because I want for them to learn from this as well,” said Hall, who could be released in 2024. “I still try to lead by example. I want them to know that everybody makes mistakes. It’s what you do after that.”
Danita Terry, a spokeswoman for Girl Scouts of Central Maryland, said the meetings are the only times some of the offenders see their daughters. In a survey last March, 67 percent said it was the only time they had with their children. Before entering the prison, all but one mother saw their daughters daily.
Despite the benefits for families with incarcerated mothers, money for Beyond Bars is often scarce. The Department of Justice used to provide funding. Now, Girl Scouts is responsible for it entirely. The cost is about $50,000 per year. The nonprofit relies on grants and donations.
Providing rides for the daughters to and from the prison is the biggest expense at $3,600 per year, even though the van is donated.
“A lot of our funding has sort of dried up,” Terry said.
Financial setbacks could be what’s preventing the program from expanding. Margaret Chippendale, acting warden, said she’d like to begin a dads and daughters troop, too, but the money isn’t available. About 10 years ago, Chippendale said she approached Boy Scouts of America about a mothers and sons troop, but the group wasn’t interested because of limited resources.
Those who have seen the program in action know its impact. Chippendale remembers a pregnant inmate who delivered her baby shortly after incarceration. A few years later, the woman was able to have a relationship with her child through Girl Scouts.
Then when the girl was old enough, she participated in the troops’ annual sleepover near Mother’s Day in the prison’s gym. The daughters bring sleeping bags, and the mothers take the mattresses off their bunks.
“It was the first time she had spent the night with her daughter — at 9,” Chippendale said. “Can you imagine?”
Soon it was time for the daughters to leave. Jones would look at the portrait Alexis drew of her, hanging on her locker, every day until next time.
See you in two weeks.
Hall held Ayona’s cheeks. She planted one, two, three, four kisses on her face.
See you in two weeks.
“Being inside a place like this, it does nothing but humble you,” Hall said.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)