People Magazine
VISITING MOM BEHIND BARS
February 26th 2006
By Thomas Fields-Meyer and Joanne Fowler
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark

GIRL SCOUT TROOP 1500 IN AUSTIN, TEXAS, HAS A UNIQUE MISSION: TO NURTURE TIES TO THEIR MOTHERS IN PRISON AND LEARN TO HANDLE THEIR SADNESS AND ANGER

Shaniqua, 14, earns As and B's at school, sings in the choir and last year was voted best dressed in her eighth grade class. "I get my style from my mom," she says proudly. She has to work from memory. These days Shaniqua's mother, Debbie Price, 34, wears a baggy, white prison uniform, standard issue at the Hilltop Unit in Gatesville, the maximum-security facility 100 miles north of Austin, Texas, where Price is serving a three-year term for aggravated assault. Says Shaniqua: "I just want her back."

Making her loneliness a little easier to bear is Austin's Girl Scout Troop 1500. Combining typical scouting activities last year the girls sold 500 boxes of cookies and took a summer camping trip—the troop is also one of 40 nationwide for girls with incarcerated moms. "They are very, very sad," troop leader Julia Cuba says. "Eventually they are very, very angry."

A trained social worker, Cuba, 31, hopes to break the cycle of incarceration by bringing in counselors to provide group therapy for the girls. She also takes seven of the girls on a monthly visit to Gatesville. One goal: to get the girls to open up to their moms about their often combustible mix of emotions.

Shaniqua is still struggling with that. "Sometimes I feel mad at my mom for not being here, but I can't tell her," she says. "She tells me to be a good girl, but she got into trouble. It's frustrating." One thing Shaniqua knows, she wants to avoid her mother's mistakes: "I don't get scared when I enter the prison. But it makes me think I don't want to be there when I'm older."

On Jan. 21 PEOPLE accompanied Troop 1500 on its Visit to Hilltop. Here are the girls' stories.


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TOUGH LOVE: “When my mom was out, we used to go bowling or fishing.” Says Shaniqua (with mom Debbie Price, at Hilltop Jan, 21). “I just miss seeing her every day.”


NAOMI, 15

MOTHER SERVING 50 YEARS FOR MURDER OF TWO NURSING‑HOME PATINTS

My mom has been gone since I was 6.

I only have a few memories of her. We used to go to parks and have friends over. I remember Thanksgiving and Christmas, opening presents.

The biggest impact of my mom being in prison is the lack of motherly love in my life. I save all my mom's cards and letters. The box is so full it won't close anymore. She wrote this one card when I was 9, about to turn 10: "Dear Naomi: The girl on this card reminds me of you. I must stop thinking of you as a little girl. You are a young lady and I am very proud of you.... Please pray for me..."

Being in the Girl Scouts changed my relationship with my mom. She used to do all the talking, but now I am starting to talk and tell her about school and my friends. The Girl Scout meetings are a big deal. I really don't turn to anybody else. I used to be shy around the girls, and now they say, "You are not a shy girl anymore." Last year my mother tried to commit suicide. I felt p‑‑‑‑d off when she tried to do that. One of the first things I did was make her promise not to try to kill herself again. I made her promise she wouldn't leave. I've learned not to get my hopes up with her. But I am starting to trust her now.


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A DAUGHTER’S TOUCH: Naomi and mom Susan Hey in the hilltop yard.

“The biggest impact of my mom being in prison is the lack of motherly love in my life” - Naomi


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THIS GIRL’S LIFE: Naomi in her bedroom at home in Austin.

SHERQUERO,13

MOTHER SERVING THREE YEARS FOR AGGRAVATED ASSAULT WITH A DEADLY WEAPON

My mom wants to be close, but before she went to prison, I almost never lived with her. I write her letters and tell her everything in my life. Then I read it over and I just feel sad. I don't send the letter. I think it would make my mom sad to read it. But she wants to know what's going on in our lives.

When she saw my blue eye shadow [at the Jan. 21 visit], she said, "When did you start wearing makeup? I guess now that you're 13, you wear it."

When I first started coming, I was scared and would just sit quietly because the warden would look at us. But we hugged a lot today. Out of the blue, we just hugged each other. It felt good.


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SISTER ACT: “I don’t think I’ll ever be in prison,” says Sherquero (left, with sister Kiara, 12, also a troop member). “I’ve seen what we’ve gone through with my mom.”

LEANNA, 13
MOTHER SERVING 2 1/2 YEARS FOR FELONY THEFT

The day my mom was arrested, we were at the mall in different stores. Then someone—a police officer, I think—called my cell phone and said my mom was in trouble. She took something at a department store and they caught her. I didn't get to say goodbye.

It didn't really surprise me. She's been in prison before. Sometimes I feel mad and hurt. I can't really tell my mom I'm unhappy she went to jail. But I feel it inside sometimes.

As the oldest in the family, I have to take care of my brother and two sisters if my grandma has to go to work. I don't get to have that much fun anymore because I have to do chores.

During the visit I talked to my mom about my boyfriend. He has seen a picture of her, and she has seen a picture of him, but they've never met. l wanted to spend more time with her. I wanted to tell her more about what is going on at home and in my life. I can't really talk to my friends at school about my mom being in prison. There are girls in the troop I can talk to; they're in the same situation.

"WHEN SHE COMES HOME, THINK IT'S GOING TO BE DIFFERENT. SHE SAYS SHE'LL CHANGE. MY DREAM IS FOR MY MOM TO GET HER OWN PLACE AND WE CAN LIVE WITH HER”
-LEANNA


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A MONTH’S WORTH OF HUGS: “Our communication skills are better now, “ says mom Misty Nuncio, 31 (with Sierra, 7, in the Hilltop library).


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AFTER THE VISIT: Leanna (left) and her sister Sierra, also a troop member, at home in Austin.

END