Student builds bridges beyond bars

By Olivia McSpadden ’15

Wold balances school, her internship and a part-time job as a barista at Starbucks. Since high school she has been customizing drinks in the Tacoma area.
Wold balances school, her internship and a part-time job as a barista at Starbucks. Since high school she has been customizing drinks in the Tacoma area. Photo by Olivia McSpadden.

When students think of a typical day at work, usually that does not involve a sterile cafeteria with florescent lights, tables bolted to the floor, constant supervision followed by an afternoon of scrapbooking. However, this scenario is a common occurrence for PLU senior, Emily Wold who works as an intern for the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program in Western Washington this year.

“I felt like a fish out of water,” said Wold. The reality of working in a prison setting involved a learning curve for Wold.

As a social work major, Wold chose this program in the area of corrections to fulfill her internship requirement. Typically it is hard to get internships in corrections due to the competition with graduate students. But the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program in the area allowed Wold to participate as a practicum student, similar to student teaching for education majors. As a practicum student she can work directly with incarcerated mothers and ask questions that other interns cannot.

Girl Scouts Beyond Bars

According to an article in The Seattle Times, the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars (GSBB) program exists in about 26 states with two troops in Western Washington. In these troops are daughters ages 5 to 17. These troop members are unique because the share a common experience: their mothers are in prison.

The Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program aims to provide services for the daughters of incarcerated mothers so that daughters can foster relationships with their mothers and each other.

In a Child Welfare article written by Kathleen J. Block and Margaret J. Potthast, it summarizes the program services as providing door-to-door transportation of the daughters to the mother’s facility for frequently scheduled troop meetings. By involving the young girls in Girl Scout activities they can form a community that will remain until their mother’s sentence is over. Girls can stay in the program up to three years after the mother is released.

Locally the program involves mothers who have been sent to various corrections centers for women in Gig Harbor, Monroe and Belfair.

The daughters see their moms throughout the month and participate in an activity together within the prison. For example, Wold helped mothers and daughters on a scrapbooking project that allowed specific photos to be kept by mothers in their cells.

In the 2008 Girl Scouts Beyond Bars Report, a sample group of 93 girls showed that 85 percent of the girls with incarcerated mothers reported feeling “a lot” closer to their mothers since joining the program.

“A girl told me that seeing her mom was the best part of her month,” said Wold.

Past activities for the troop girls included a calligraphy class, an open gym, a visit to a pumpkin patch and a pool party at the YMCA in Seattle. This allows them to have a source of socialization with girls who are dealing with similar issues.

Wold studies materials provided by her supervisor at her home in Tacoma. So far she has completed 60 out of the 460 hours required for the year.
Wold studies materials provided by her supervisor at her home in Tacoma. So far she has completed 60 out of the 460 hours required for the year. Photo by Olivia McSpadden.

Emily’s Experience 

Security and confidentiality are the main goals when Wold visits the prison with the girls.

Entering the facility everyone is checked by hand for closer inspection when entering the facility, so that foreign materials and threats are left outside.

“We have 5-year-old girls that meet the officer and automatically spread eagle as they wait for the wand,” said Wold.  “And they know at five years old that’s how you visit mom. It’s hard for me to stomach.”

Strict conduct and dress codes including no hoodies apply to everyone. When Wold is one-on-one with the mothers she is not allowed to identify or talk about herself. Also, physical contact such as hugs are prohibited.

“Social skills are out the window,” Wold said, “I can’t be as open about my personal life like a normal person.”

Wold expected that her conversations with the mothers would be focused on her but they want to know about their kids. She finds herself in a mediator role instead.

“It is a sad, exhausting emotional roller coaster when the girls visit because they go from having so much fun for two hours and then to a screeching halt,” said Wold.

Limited visit time exists as a constant reminder that the daughters will go home without their mothers.

“Whenever Emily is done (with her visits) she calls me and decompresses,” said boyfriend Trevor Maloney, “I can hear it in her voice—I am worn out, tell me good things.”

Aside from the exhaustion Emily says she finds herself recalling what she takes for granted and overlooks– like the accessibility of relationships in her life.

“I can go to the bathroom when I want, make phone calls, drink coffee. Have hairspray,” said Wold. These are all privileges that inmates are denied when she goes to work.

Wold says she is now considering  working in corrections based on her current experience with Girl Scouts Beyond Bars. She is interested in how law and crime works like the minimum mandatory sentencing for drugs. Beyond the legal issues involved, Wold is interested in the recurring theme of social injustice that she witnesses.

In fact, this work opportunity has influenced her senior capstone project. She plans to research how incarcerated moms affect children psychologically, emotionally and economically especially since the recession has impacted the funding for research on these programs.

“I see how openly thankful the girls are to see their moms, so it makes it easier to write about the effects on them as children,” Wold said.

Wold’s experience exemplifies the importance of real-world experience while in college. She never chose the corrections life she says, the corrections life chose her.

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