This is how the members of one Maryland Girl Scout troop get to their regular meetings:
They walk past fences topped with coils of razor-sharp wire, through metal detectors and sliding security doors. They raise their arms so guards can pat their sides to make sure nothing forbidden is hidden there. And they walk past a rack of handcuffs and leg chains.
But none of that mattered one Saturday last month, because soon the scouts would be seeing someone really important, someone they hadn't seen for days or weeks.
"Mom! Mom!" yelled Amanda, 9, racing to her mother, who scooped her up in a hug that lasted for a good half-minute.
Amanda's scout troop meets twice a month at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup. Its members all have something in common: Their mothers -- and, in some cases, their grandmothers -- are prisoners there.
All around a small classroom, daughters were grabbing mothers by the sleeve and mothers were running their fingers through their girls' hair, straightening out messy bangs, commenting on new clothes.
Amanda and her mom chattered away about the family dog, and about where her mom will sleep when she "comes back home."
The program is called Girl Scouts Beyond Bars. It's intended to help the 15 moms who participate stay close to their girls, even though walls, fences and many miles separate them. The idea is to build up everyone's self-confidence and self-esteem with a time-tested tool: Girl Scout values.
At last month's meeting, moms and daughters alike started by raising three fingers in the Girl Scout salute and reciting the Girl Scout Promise and the Girl Scout Law ("I will do my best to be honest and fair, friendly and helpful . . . ").
Then, troop members and mothers shouted out any good news they had.
"I got all my words right on a spelling test!" one girl said. "I won a poetry contest," another reported. (KidsPost agreed not to use the full names of the girls and mothers included in this story.)
They applauded and cheered each accomplishment.
These troop meetings are a lot like any Girl Scout gathering. The girls and their moms do crafts (jewelry, Easter baskets, spring wreaths) and plan a Christmas party. They work on badges (black history, personal hygiene). The girls sometimes meet outside the prison, where they do community service projects, such as making monthly visits to a nursing home.
Naturally, they sell Girl Scout cookies, with the moms peddling Peanut Butter Sandwiches and Thin Mints to their only available customers: prison guards and fellow inmates.
One thing that the scouting leaders emphasize, perhaps more than most scout troops, is making good choices and staying healthy. It's a touchy topic, the mothers admit, because they have made some poor choices and been anything but healthy. Most of the mothers said they abused drugs and alcohol in the past.
A 9-year-old wearing a green Girl Scout vest and tiny bumblebee earrings told how she likes the meetings "because I like to learn about things, like how you should never start smoking cigarettes, 'cause it's hard to stop.
"Also, I'm learning to crochet," she said. "We're crocheting bags for the seniors."
The girl said her mother had been a cigarette smoker. The mom said she had other habits before going to prison: drinking alcohol and taking illegal drugs.
"I let her know I used to do drugs," said the mom, Crystal.
Crystal, whose daughter has gone from Brownie to Junior during the two years her mother has been in prison, said scouting has helped her turn her life around and keep her daughter out of trouble.
"With my daughter in Girl Scouts, we have a beautiful bond," said Crystal, a talkative woman who wears her hair in a flip. "Girl Scouts helps me understand how to live, what rules to live by."
Crystal's daughter listened as her mother spoke about the choices she made.
"How do you feel, about me being here?" she asked her daughter.
The girl paused and said: "Angry. Sad."
That seemed to stop Crystal, for a moment. "It's okay, to feel that way," Crystal said, taking her hand.
"It's okay," she said, hugging her.
-- Fern Shen