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Love, courageous and strong

Girl Scouts Beyond Bars eases state separation of mother and child

Mercedes Love hugs her daughters, Le’Airra Jones and Frantazia Jones as they say goodbye at the end of their visit.

Photos by Joseph Rushmore

Crouching in the backseat of a van barreling down Interstate 44 to Oklahoma City, Daisa Love shows off her neatly-scripted tattoo bearing her mother’s name, Mercedes Love, on her right shoulder.

Love got the tattoo three months ago, a constant reminder of her best friend, who she sees only once per month at the Kate Barnard Community Corrections Center in Oklahoma City.

Mercedes has been locked up for six years, serving time for a probation violation stemming from a robbery conviction.

Every month, her three daughters make the trek from their homes in Tulsa to Oklahoma City to see her, thanks to Girl Scouts Beyond Bars, a Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma program that takes children to see their incarcerated mothers.

Le’Airra Jones“I love Fridays because I know that’s when I get to see her. Walking in there and seeing her face is just amazing,” Daisa says, sitting between her two sisters, Le’Airra and Frantazia Jones, as they eat snacks.

As of December 19, Mercedes is one of the 3,144 women currently in Oklahoma’s prisons. According to the Girl Scouts, national data indicates that almost two-thirds of female prisoners are mothers. Programs like Girl Scouts Beyond Bars make visiting imprisoned mothers more accessible to their children.

Frantazia Jones“It’s hard, because I know at the end of the day I’ll have to leave her,” says 18-year-old Daisa, who is a senior at Webster High School. Riding down the interstate, Daisa quietly sings “My Girl.”

At the prison, Daisa, along with Le’Airra, 13, and Frantazia, 14, play hide and go seek as they await their mother’s arrival. The meeting room is large and open, filled with long tables and chairs, a Christmas tree in the corner, and a table covered with games like Clue and Yahtzee. It’s where the four of them will spend the next few hours talking about their school days, the new baby in the family, and basketball players.

Mercedes, dressed in jeans and a gray long-sleeved shirt with “Corrections” written across the back, arrives in the room to hugs and laughter. The girls arrive earlier than usual, so Mercedes didn’t have time to finish styling her hair or add makeup to her eyebrows, she says. All four are full of energy and smiles. Mercedes arrives with gifts in hand for the girls for Christmas and two of the girls’ upcoming birthdays. They munch on brownie cakes covered with icing and M&M’s and Reese’s Pieces.

Daisa Love fixes her mother Mercedes Love’s hair.

“I’m very thankful that I still have them in my life,” Mercedes says. “And that they’re with my mother and not in the state’s custody or anything like that. Because at the end of the day, I feel like it’s not whether my mom or Girl Scouts lets my kids come see me. It’s about them wanting to come see me, and they do every time.”

Mercedes has about seven or eight more years left to serve, though she’s hopeful she’ll be released before then due to good behavior. Both Mercedes and the girls are adamant that she was in the wrong place at the wrong time when she was arrested for robbery just after Daisa’s 13th birthday. Mercedes had started using PCP, a drug she had little experience with, she says, and it took over her life for a year, during which time authorities say she was involved in a robbery. Mercedes says she didn’t actually rob anyone.

Now, she says, she has turned her life around. She works at the prison and doesn’t have any misconduct charges.

“I don’t get in trouble with the police or my case manager or inmates. Nothing like that,” she says. “I’m doing everything that’s required. I’m doing it. I’m ready to go home to my kids.”

Those kids include a new grandson, her 19-year-old son’s baby.

Mercedes’ daughters are three of approximately 1.8 million girls and another 800,000 adults who take part in Girl Scouts. Several chapters have their own program for taking children into prisons.

In Eastern Oklahoma, the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program has been around since 2002, says Sheila Harbert, chief community outreach officer for Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma.

“Our main goal is the issue with the children,” Harbert says.  “Having a parent incarcerated is trauma. It paralyzes them. It stunts them. It stops their growth. They don’t know what to do because this mom has been taken out of the home.”

According to statistics provided by Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma, 88 percent of children allowed prison visits showed a reduction in delinquency and arrests. Parental training for mothers who don’t get to spend much time with their children is also available through Girl Scouts Beyond Bars.

The 2014 Oklahoma Study of Incarcerated Women and Their Children found that children of incarcerated mothers experience several problems, including mental health, relationship, educational, substance abuse, and legal issues.

Daisa and Mercedes Love dance and laugh.“You have to teach them parenting, but you also have to teach them leadership, or how to work with the child. But you have to have fun, too, because they are in a dark place. When the children come, they just want to have their family be a family again,” Harbert says.

Mercedes is determined not to have any of her children follow her path, especially Daisa, who’s around the age Mercedes was when she first got into trouble with the law.

During the meeting, Mercedes’s cousin, Brittany, is among the incarcerated mothers meeting with their children.

Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News, a newspaper focusing on criminal justice issues and prisoners’ rights, says children of incarcerated parents face a “triple whammy” of trouble. They’re physically separated from their parents, who are often located in remote prisons. The prisons are often difficult to access, with draconian visiting hours and policies, and the telephone access policies are difficult to follow and pricey.

“This puts a huge number of burdens and problems on the children of incarcerated parents,” Wright says.

Twenty or 30 years ago, there may have been an issue with stigmatization, though Wright thinks this isn’t much of a problem anymore.

“Ironically, as mass incarceration becomes more common and affects more and more people, I’d say, conversely, there’s less stigmatization than, say, 30 years ago,” Wright says.

As for the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program, Wright thinks it’s positive. One of his critiques is that Girl Scouts doesn’t spend enough time and resources on the girls who have incarcerated parents. However, he believes the Girl Scouts are doing better than they were 20 years ago, because they weren’t doing anything with incarcerated parents then.

Harbert said many of the women she meets have been conned by men to take the wrap.

“You think it’s a cliché, but they take the fall. You’re like, ‘Why would you do that?’ But the men have persuaded them like, ‘Hey, I have a record, you don’t have anything—why don’t you take this,’” she says.  “They don’t realize what they just agreed to could be child endangerment, selling something within a few yards of a school. They take on more of a charge than they really thought.”

For the children, meanwhile, the program helps them feel less isolated in their family life. Kids who might never have known their fellow classmates also have mothers in prison are able to connect with others.

“We’re role models, but what really makes it work is [them],” she says. “It builds relationships.”

Those relationships are evident as they huddle in a circle with the other mothers and children on a recent Friday evening following a dinner of sandwiches, chips, cupcakes, and—of course—Girl Scout cookies.

The participants held up the Girl Scout three-finger salute while reciting the Girl Scout promise:

On my honor, I will try:
To serve God and my country,
To help people at all times, 
And to live by the Girl Scout Law.

Following the recitation, Mercedes hugs each of her daughters, one by one, and says she looks forward to seeing them again.

“I’m ready to go home to my children.”

Frantazia Jones hugs her mother one last time at the end of their visit.

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