Troop 1500: Girl Scouts Beyond Bars

AUSTIN, Texas—An estimated 1.5 million children in the U.S. have an incarcerated parent, increasing the likelihood that they, too, will end up behind bars. Working to break the prison cycle is Girl Scout Troop 1500, an innovative program that is the subject of award-winning filmmaker and Radio-Television-Film Associate Professor Ellen Spiro’s latest documentary, “Troop 1500.”

Troop 1500 at the Hilltop Prison in Gatesville, Texas
Troop 1500 at the Hilltop Prison in Gatesville, Texas.

Photo: Ellen Spiro

The 68-minute film, which is screening during the South by Southwest Film festival in Austin this week, focuses on eight to 10 of the 48 girls in Troop 1500 as they make their monthly trip to the Gatesville Hilltop Prison in Gatesville, about 90 miles northeast of Austin.

The girls are not only the subjects of the film, but they also worked as crew members.

“Karen Bernstein (‘Troop 1500’ producer) and I volunteered with the troop for a few years before shooting the film,” said Spiro, whose documentaries have been broadcast around the world. “We trained the girls in media production, teaching the girls how to make their own films. This enabled the girls to understand the production process once filming began and enabled them to be part of it—and not just as subjects.

“I had the idea of having the girls interview their own mothers,” Spiro said. “It told the deeper story beautifully and the girls used the opportunity and the formality of the interview set-up to ask their moms questions they had never asked before: ‘What did you think the first night you were in prison?’ and ‘Why are you in prison?’

“The mothers were in the difficult position of having to answer the questions on film. It was not easy for either the moms or the girls, but there is a transformation happening on-screen that is therapeutic and liberating, but also very scary,” Spiro added. “These turned out to be some of the most moving moments in the film.”

Founded in Maryland in 1992, the Girl Scouts Behind Bars Program now involves about 800 girls and their mothers across the country. The Austin-based Girl Scout Troop 1500, one of two such programs in Texas, was created in 1998 with help from a grant from the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health.

Melissa and Jasmine, mom and daughter, at the Hilltop Prison in Gatesville, Texas
Melissa (left) and Jasmine, mom and daughter, at the Hilltop Prison in Gatesville, Texas.

Photo: Ellen Spiro

“Most of the incarcerated mothers are there for addiction-related crimes,” Spiro said. “Addiction is a mental illness that overpowers good judgment for the sake of a chemical and psychological need. The back-story of this film has to do with a lack of treatment for addiction and mental illness. It’s an untreated epidemic in prisons and many women go back once they’re released. The primary victims of all this societal ignorance are the girls.”

The girls in the troop, who range from ages 6 to 17, meet three times each month to participate in group therapy and engage in more traditional Girl Scout activities, such as camp outs and cookie sales.

During their monthly visits to Hilltop, mothers and daughters share a meal, do each other’s nails and address self-esteem and identity issues through team building, literacy and decision-making discussions, communication-building skills work, life skills activities and group therapy.

Professor Darlene Grant in the School of Social Work has served as the evaluator of Troop 1500 since its inception. According to her, the statistics for the group are heartening: 96 percent of the 45 girls have not become pregnant before age 18, 93 percent have remained in school and 100 percent have not been arrested. 

“This film is finished,” concluded Spiro, “but in some ways, it is just the beginning of our friendships with these girls and their moms. They will always be an important part of our lives.”

“Troop 1500” premiered at the Museum on Modern Art in February as part of the Documentary Fortnight, which exhibits non-fiction media that examines provocative issues around the world. It will be shown March 16 and March 19 as part of the South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin and it will air on PBS later this year.

For more information contact: Erin Geisler, College of Communciation, 512-475-8071.