‘Beyond Bars’ connects inmate mothers with daughters

Inmates at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison usually can have visitors only on Wednesdays for about 15 minutes, no touching allowed.

But on Saturday afternoon, a handful of incarcerated mothers sat inside a room at the Parish Prison with arms draped around their daughters, smiles spread across their faces and, for many, tears dripping down their cheeks.

“Knowing they still want something to do with me even though I’m here — it makes me so happy,” said Kelley Richard, 27, as one of her two young daughters sat in her lap and the other played with her hair. Richard, booked in February on simple burglary and forgery charges, said she misses her children all the time.

Richard was one of about 10 jailed mothers who enjoyed two precious hours in the company of their daughters as part of an orientation to “Beyond Bars,” a Girl Scouts program that aims to strengthen familial relationships stressed by time apart while also teaching life skills that program leaders hope will reduce recidivism for the mothers and encourage crime-free lives for the daughters.

“There’s nothing more important than a mother’s love for her child,” said Suzanne Mayo-Theus, volunteer coordinator of the program, which has served inmates at the Orleans Parish Prison since October and inmates in other states since the 1990s.

Saturday’s orientation marked the first “Beyond Bars” meeting at the Parish Prison, although Girl Scout leaders once tried to establish the program there years ago without much success, said Dianne Rose, outreach director for Girl Scouts Louisiana East.

Girl Scout leaders will meet once a month until October with program participants at the Parish Prison, counseling the mothers separately from their children while their daughters participate in activities. Then, for about 30 minutes at the end of each meeting, mothers and daughters will be allowed to socialize, Rose said.

Warden Dennis Grimes, speaking to the inmates and their children, asked the mothers to put their children’s lives before their own. He also thanked the people who care for the children while the mothers are incarcerated, because without them, “none of this would be possible,” he said.

Not all women qualify for the program, Grimes said. Inmates booked on sex crimes or crimes against children are excluded, he said, as are inmates with a disciplinary record.

In addition to the meetings with their mothers at Parish Prison, the daughters will be “adopted” by local churches and treated to occasional gatherings and field trips. In Orleans Parish, program leaders took the girls on a steamboat ride in Natchez. And next week, the girls there will attend an etiquette class, said Rose, the outreach director.

Several East Baton Rouge Parish Prison inmates on Saturday said they look forward to seeing their children more often because of the program.

“I wake up just to see their faces,” said Sherri Burks, 27, flanked by her daughters, Rayne Speegle, 9, and McKinzy Speegle, 8.

Saturday was the first time that Burks, who was booked in late March on several counts including attempted armed robbery, had seen her daughters since her arrest.

“The hardest thing is at night when you’re trying to go to sleep,” Burks said, “because you can’t get away from your own thoughts.”

Burks waited longer than most the mothers in the room to see her children. At least 30 minutes passed, filled with anxious waiting and frequent peeks out a nearby window, before Burks’ daughters finally appeared.

At the sight of them, the young mother shot up and hurried to the door, where she greeted Rayne, McKinzy and a niece with a sob-filled embrace.

“They’re my everything,” Burks said.