Inside a Girl Scout Program That Brings Kids to Prison to See Their Moms

Layla Arenas, 7, is spending her Saturday morning visiting her mother Magan Garcia. Magan says she lives for the visits with her daughter. "She's the reason I can keep going in here," Magan says. Sara Naomi Lewkowicz for TIME

‘Something to Live For’

The Girl Scouts Who Visit Their Moms In Prison

Sara Naomi Lewkowicz for TIME
Read more!

Layla during a visit with her mother. “She’s the reason I can keep going in here,” Magan Garcia says.

BY MELISSA CHAN | photographs BY sara naomi lewkowicz FOR TIME

Buzzing with excitement, Layla climbs into a van with her Girl Scout troop and heads to a familiar place — a prison.

The 7-year-old Texas girl is going to see her mother, just like she does on the third Saturday of every month, as part of a program aimed at improving bonds between incarcerated women and their young daughters.

Layla wants to tell her mom about her new baby guinea pig, Penelope. She wants to give her mom hugs.

“I’m happy,” she says.

Layla is a member of Troop 1500, which has been running its Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program in Austin since 2000. Once a month, the group travels almost two hours to the Gatesville Correctional Facility, where mothers and their daughters get to catch up, cuddle, eat lunch and play games. They’re able to feel “normal” for an afternoon in a space that resembles a classroom more than it does a penitentiary, organizers say.

Sara Naomi Lewkowicz for TIME

Layla, her mother and other leaders and participants in Troop 1500 take the Girl Scouts pledge.

Sara Naomi Lewkowicz for TIME

Garcia tells the group before lunch that her daughter has a new baby guinea pig named Penelope.

Sara Naomi Lewkowicz for TIME

Trunarah, 8, goofs off with her mom, Lakeshia Kennedy.

“Many times you’ll step back and realize, ‘Oh, my God. I’m in a prison.’ You really feel you’re just in a troop meeting,” says Lolis Garcia-Baab, a spokeswoman for the Girls Scouts of Central Texas. “You see this love between the child and the mother that just wouldn’t be there if they didn’t have this monthly contact.”

Girl Scouts Beyond Bars began in Maryland in 1992, and there are now nearly 20 versions of it run by troops around the country. It’s unclear how many girls the program has helped in total, since Girl Scouts U.S.A. said it does not track numbers nationally. In Texas, more than 160 girls have participated in Girl Scouts Beyond Bars since its inception, according to Garcia-Baab. The Texas program offers counseling to about 30 girls each year who are between 5 and 18 years old and typically come from low-income households. The children can stay in the program until they age out at 18.

Sara Naomi Lewkowicz for TIME

Trunarah cuddles with her mother as Layla shares secrets with hers.

“To a little girl, it’s huge,” Garcia-Baab says. “Think about all the things you did with your mom growing up. Watching her set the table. Watching her interact with her friends, with other people. We learn so much from our parents, and they really are our closest role models. When you remove that support, the child is really anchorless.”

“We provide them the support they need and keep that connection with their mom strong,” she adds. “There are a lot of reasons why this troop exists, but the primary reason is [to help] these girls succeed in life, especially with all the things stacked against them.”

Sara Naomi Lewkowicz for TIME

Tina Cordova talks to her daughter Magan Garcia. Garcia has called her from prison after a particularly difficult day: “She told me that for once she wanted to be a daughter and be the one taken care of.”

Sara Naomi Lewkowicz for TIME

Layla got decked out in Wonder Woman gear to go see the new Wonder Woman movie with her grandmother, Cordova.

Sara Naomi Lewkowicz for TIME

Layla is a huge fan of superheroes—female ones in particular.

Another participant in Girl Scouts Beyond Bars is 8-year-old Trunarah, who frowns as she burrows into her mother’s chest during a recent visit on June 17. Her mother Lakeshia Kennedy has about three years left in her prison sentence for credit card abuse, state records show.

Kennedy, 40, wraps both of her arms around her daughter. It’s a fleeting sadness, at least, because later, Trunarah’s grin stretches ear to ear while she plays with her mother.

Sara Naomi Lewkowicz for TIME

Trunarah spends an afternoon at The Thinkery in Austin with her Girl Scouts mentor.

Sara Naomi Lewkowicz for TIME

Trunarah plays at The Thinkery with her mentor.

Sara Naomi Lewkowicz for TIME

Trunarah plays at The Thinkery.

Meanwhile, Layla whispers a secret in her mother’s ear. They gently push their foreheads together. It’s a moment Magan Garcia, Layla’s mom, will hold onto for the rest of the month. “She’s the reason I can keep going in here,” Garcia says.

In 2015, Garcia was sentenced to 15 years in prison after she plowed into a local laundromat while driving drunk, killing a 54-year-old man inside, the American-Statesman reported at the time.

“She had just gotten her certificate to be a dental assistant and she wounded up in prison that night,” says Garcia’s mother Tina Cordova, who takes care of Layla.

Garcia was 22. Her daughter was only 5.

Sara Naomi Lewkowicz for TIME

Layla swims in the community pool near her grandmother’s home.

Sara Naomi Lewkowicz for TIME

Troop 1500 visits a waterpark outside of Austin.

“[The hardest part is] when she asks when I’m coming home and I can’t tell her an answer,” Garcia says as her daughter sits nearby, writing her a letter in a journal the two share. “I see her grow all the time, and I feel like time is passing, and I worry that we may lose our relationship.”

It’s the 25-year-old mother’s biggest anxiety — but one she says is easing with the help of the Girl Scouts program.

“I have the opportunity to just be a mom and to really have a relationship and enjoy each other,” she says. “It reminds me that I have something to live for.”

Garcia, who is working on getting her college degree in prison, says she’s up for parole in three years.

Until then, Layla is passing her summer swimming, collecting rocks and pretending she’s Wonder Woman.

When asked during a Girl Scouts game what she would do if she suddenly came into a windfall of cash, Layla says she would hire a lawyer to help free her mother.

“[I would] give the prison all my money to get my mommy out,” she says.

Sara Naomi Lewkowicz for TIME

Layla swims in the pool near her grandmother’s home.

Sara Naomi Lewkowicz for TIME

Layla gives her grandmother a kiss at the pool. The two had a girls’ day, getting pedicures and seeing Wonder Woman. “I know the ways that I messed up with Magan. I know I did things wrong as a parent. I am going to break that cycle with Layla,” Cordova says.

Sara Naomi Lewkowicz for TIME

Layla poses for a portrait in the front yard with her guinea pig, Penelope.

— Additional reporting by Sara Naomi Lewkowicz

Read more!