The girls arrive with a mix of hope and sadness on their faces at the Santa Maria Unit of the Arizona State Prison Complex-Perryville, west of Phoenix, says the Arizona Republic. “This is what keeps me going,” says inmate Iris Schultz, stroking the silky brown hair of 9-year-old daughter, Dezja. “I count down the days until she comes again.” Dezja and a dozen girls visit their moms every other weekend in the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program, which preserves connections between mothers on the inside and their daughters outside. The supervised activities focus on character and self-esteem building, attributes that may keep the girls from following in their mothers’ felonious footsteps.
Dezja and her group are among an estimated 2.4 million American kids with parents behind bars, a number that’s doubled in the past decade, says the Federal Resource Center for Children of Prisoners. More than 320,000 kids belong to prison moms, say estimates by the Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents. Substance abuse, especially methamphetamine, a breakdown in families, a history of child abuse and tougher sentencing laws are contributors to the trend. In 1994, Maricopa County became the first county to participate in Beyond Bars, a program of the National Institute of Justice. Research by the University of Missouri-Columbia’s School of Social Work published in 2003 found nearly half of delinquent children whose parents did jail time had been in trouble with the law themselves by the time they were 12. Almost all had behavior problems and nearly half abused alcohol or drugs. A disturbing trend in Maricopa County is the rise in crime rates among women and underage girls, said County Attorney Andrew Thomas.