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Originally published Wednesday, October 6, 2010 at 10:00 PM

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Jerry Large

Free to be mothers and sons

Prison seems an odd place for a Boy Scout to be, but I've seen Scouts eager to walk through heavy doors. They were going to visit their mothers.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Prison seems an odd place for a Boy Scout to be, but I've seen Scouts eager to walk through heavy doors. They were going to visit their mothers.

Saturday, I walked in with 11 Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts, through doors that are usually locked, and through double chain-link fences bristling with razor wire.

On the other side of the barriers, a group of women in gray sweat suits waved and smiled and called out to their sons.

LaShonda Johnson told me she can't sleep the night before her son Estevan comes to visit.

It's the anticipation, she says, "Waiting until 1 p.m. is torturous."

Johnson is imprisoned at the Washington Correctional Center for Women in Purdy, but she gets to spend a special afternoon with Estevan the first Saturday of each month thanks to a special Boy Scout program.

It started as something to help the boys, but it also is good for the mothers and, as it turns out, for the Pierce County prison, too. In the long run, I'm betting it will benefit the whole community.

Mothers have to apply for the program. They get in and stay in only as long as their record in prison is clean and they are working to improve themselves.

Willie Craig worked with the program when he was on the prison staff as a counselor. Since retiring, he volunteers because he sees the program working.

Moms in the program behave differently, he said, because they know, "When I do something, it not only hurts me, but my kids."

Each month, Margo Curley, the program leader, meets with the mothers to plan the next get-together.

The mothers take the lead, deciding which activities they want and, when Saturday comes, they are in charge. Their planning, cooperation and leadership skills improve, and the boys get to learn from their mothers. Everyone gets a dose of Scout values.

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"It's helped me and my son grow," said Juanita Lopez-Voshell. She's had three sons in the program, which ends when boys turn 18. Her youngest, Gregory, is still participating. "I've been here six years, and he's been in the program for five."

Gregory said he likes the visits because the activities are fun, but also because he gets to see his mom is all right.

Lopez-Voshell is scheduled for work release after Christmas and said the transition to full-time mom will be easier with the bond these Saturdays helped maintain.

Volunteers pick the boys up and drive them to the prison from as far away as Kingston and as close as Tacoma.

Kasha Vasquez, one of the volunteers, said, "People ask me, 'How can you bring kids to prison?' They don't care about all that, just seeing their moms is what's important."

After the first greeting, everyone goes into a classroom for sack lunches. There is as much hugging and talking as there is eating. I looked around the room for a pair to interview, but their faces were so intensely beaming, I decided to wait a bit.

I asked Sharon Kirkpatrick how the program got started. Kirkpatrick, a Navy veteran who has won numerous awards for community service, did her master's thesis on children of incarcerated parents.

She saw a similar program in California and asked if Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts would be interested in replicating it here. The programs started in 2002.

Boys who have a parent in prison are about 50 percent more likely to wind up in prison themselves, Kirkpatrick said. "The real goal is breaking that intergenerational cycle."

The boys enjoy being together, Vasquez said. No one is judging them. They spend time together outside of prison on camping trips and other activities, absorbing the good stuff that Scouting offers. (Curley said they always need more volunteers for that part. If you're interested, her number is 360-908-2706.)

The moms said they don't want the children to make their mistakes.

"I refuse to see him where I'm at," Johnson said of her son. "He's a great boy." She'll be out next June and Estevan is looking forward to that. She can give him more love when she's out, he said.

After lots of games, about 3:45 p.m., a loudspeaker announces recall in five minutes.

On the way out, the boys are quiet. The mothers wave and some of them call out from the other side of a wire fence. But most of the boys don't look; they just keep walking toward the exit.

They were chattering on the way in, but now they are quiet.

This is where I should ask, how do you feel? But I can see the answer.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.


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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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