Stories from prison by jean harris

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What is the role of prisons: punishment or rehabilitation? What rights are prisoners entitled to? How is it to be a convicted woman? These are the questions Jean Harris (1988) contemplates in her book They always call us ladies. Stories from prison.

At her murder trial, Ms. Harris's defense pleaded that she was "too much of a 'lady' to commit murder" (Olster, 1998, p. 79). Yet Doctor Tarnover, the author of The Complete Medical Scarsdale Diet, was shot by his lover Jean Harris on March 1980 (Olster, 1998). The only mystery around the story was the state of mind and intentions of Ms. Harris at the time of the shooting. According to the prosecutor Tarnover's death was caused by jealousy, depression and the emotional abuse Ms. Harris experienced over the course of her relationship with him. Thus it was an intentional act to end her suffering (Olster, 1998). Harris's version was that Tarnover's death was the result of her failed suicide attempt in front of her lover (Olster, 1998).

To my slight disappointment, the book did not shed much light on the March 1980 events. Rather, Ms. Harris focuses on various aspects of prison life from the early 1800s to present day, drawing heavily on her experiences at Bedford Hills Prison where she was convicted to fifteen-to-life sentence.

Punishment or Rehabilitation

Humanity perpetually wrestles with the purpose of the justice system. Legal and practical implications in criminal justice always originated from dominant philosophical beliefs of the time. What is good and what is evil? Is evil always evil or it depends? Are human beings initially good or bad? If one believes that the human character is initially good, then once depraved can she be corrected? If one believes that the human character is initially evil, then evil humans must be punished and isolated from society being hopeless for corrections. Or maybe human beings are mid-tones of good and evil? The other question is who can tell whether a human is good or bad? Can she be rehabilitated? And who can enforce any of the decisions upon wrongdoers? God? Government? Community? Or only the wrongdoer herself?

Ms. Harris in her life had been both, the preacher and the sinner. In these capacities she struggled:

"What makes some of us "good" and some of us "evil" is an age-old question. Who is good and who is evil is just as puzzling. It is easy to report about people and places, and hard to reflect about them, especially on paper where others can judge you for being judgmental… I once believed the questions of good and evil were childishly simple to solve, like telling the difference between black and white. Then, I grew up and discovered a world with hundreds of shades of grey. And then I came to prison and discovered so much evil in the box labeled "Good", and some genuine good in the box marked "Evil", that I would never again presume it was child's play to distinguish between the two." (Harris, 1988, p.63).

Philosophical beliefs about good and evil resulted in two schools of thought, as Harris argues:

"The classical school believes for whatever reasons someone breaks the rule, he's no damned good and must be harshly punished. In fact, the harsher the better. The determinist thinks we should try to find out why the crime was committed so that at the least we can save the next generation from repeating the same mistake" (Harris, 1988, p.65)

Nevertheless historically the attitude toward women-lawbreakers changed "from a woman depraved, to a woman wronged, to a woman who now says she wants to be treated equally with men" (Harris, 1998, p. 29), - she summarizes.

Harris argues that in the eyes of the public, depraved women violate the laws of nature.

"God have created a woman to be passive and pure, loving and fertile, obedient and submissive. When she committed a crime she had not only offended society, she had offended God. The "Cult of True Womanhood" had been violated… And her crimes consisted of anything from nagging to gossiping to adultery to murder. Even pouting could get her into trouble". (Harris, 1988, p. 27).

Interestingly, Harris points out that even when the reformatory movement began, "it was now the female wrongdoer who could be reformed and made new again, not the male… Furthermore, to send a woman or girl to the reformatory was not punishment, she was told. It was an expression of the public's parental control for her" (Harris, 1988, p. 28). Meanwhile, the first female reformatories were built in Newgate and Arbun in 1800s. (Harris, 1988). Yet it is important to put this in historical perspective. As progressive as it was, punishment was extremely important for a sense of justice: "burglary, forgery and stealing from the church "on a regular basis", were all punishable by life imprisonment" (Harris, 1988, p. 30). Alone with such progressive actions as separating sexes when imprisoned, inmates' treatment by today's standards was harsh. Harris refers to physical punishments, forbidding to speak at all times, absence of any cloths provided. "The men were put into cells and the women were sent to a single attic room over the prison kitchen" (Harris, 1988, p.32) that resulted in less regimentation for women and subsequently no privacy. Alone with the idea of rehabilitation and treatment it was common to endorse " indeterminate sentencing since no one could say how long reformations would take" (Harris, 1988, p.36). Either way, punished or rehabilitated, women were stuck in their gender roles.

The 1930s brought many changes in women's thinking and in criminal justice. Harris observes that women advocated for "the same treatment as men, or as close as anyone could get to it. Gender specific began to slide toward gender neutral" (Harris, 1988, p.28).

Today we tend to think of both classical and positivist criminology as "deeply flawed" (Price, Sokoloff, 2004, p. 20). Critical criminology thinking formed in 1960s and 1970s. It focuses on the fact that laws are norms socially constructed, and that the ruling class always acts as a creator (Price, Socoloff, 2004). Alone with recognizing the role of privileged class, critical criminology also identifies socially disadvantaged groups (Price, Socoloff, 2004). Critical criminology furthermore recognizes that disadvantaged groups have different experiences in life and thus these experiences need to be included in the justice equation (Price, Socoloff, 2004). Therefore critical criminology not only focuses on lawbreakers , but even more so "how the political economic system itself promotes the conditions (poverty, unemployment, etc.) that cause typical street criminal behavior" (Price, Socoloff, 2004, p. 20).

Critical criminology perspective is very appealing to me. It connects criminal law with economics, politics, culture, sociology and even psychology. It helps me understanding affirmative action concept. In this regard, it helps me to understand why in her decision Justice Sandra Day O'Connor allowed the Michigan State University privileging black students while admissions for 25 years starting from 2003 (Toobin, 2007). It explains why I can see shades of grey in Ms. Harris' story. It also restrains me from making one-dimensional judgments. But the most important is that critical criminology helps me to see that punishment and rehabilitation both are not enough to conquer crime.

Prisoners' Rights

"There is an aura of science fiction about prison. It's real, but it shouldn't be" (Harris, 1988, p.8). Seems like Ms. Harris constantly tries to wake up from her surrounding nightmare. Seems like she refers to history, observing all the values and attitudes in their dynamic change, and secretly believing that maybe someday a more just society would be able to look into her soul and see a lady, not murderer. She hopes that someday society will perfect cures for those who stepped out, and the useful member of society as an outcome will be guaranteed.

"Obviously what we accept today should not be judged in the light of yesterday's values… Prisons, like schools, do not create values; they mirror them, something the average citizen is not comfortable being told" (Harris, 1988, p. 23)

People always make mistakes. Some fail to be lawful, others fail to invent and enforce laws. Today we struggle how much of a freedom can be given away for committing a crime. And what rights are undeniable. Naturally, inmates and corrections officers (C.O.s) have different perspectives. Should prisoners have a right to work, to be paid, to education, to perform arts, to have relationships, to privacy etc.?

"Physically, prisoners are better treated today… We are not chained to the walls, and fed bread and water, nor do we have our faces dipped into pans of cold water as "treatment" to calm us down. Some may be chained to their beds if they have to go to hospital, a practice that should have stopped before it started, and which I am grateful was not inflicted upon me" (Harris, 1988, p. 277).

Nevertheless, Ms. Harris sees a lot of ways for improvement. Namely, prisoners need "rooms" (Harris, 1988, p.3) with a lot of fresh air, with windows towards the sky, they need the unlimited right for education, books, a lot of privacy. Women need to have more freedom to be visited by their men, otherwise in some cases they will have no choice other than to engage in homosexual relationships. Food could be better. First time offenders must be treated nicely, so that they won't feel rejected by the society. And, definitely, no coarse language may be used.

Even though some of it sounds a bit naïve we may take a look at these claims closer. To understand what kind of rights could be taken, and what kind of rights could be granted, we should ask a number of other questions. What is punishment? And do we want our criminals rehabilitated? If so, what would rehabilitate them? What would motivate them to go back to society with understanding of their crime, understanding of its damage, and what is more important, with restored relations between herself and society (victim where it is possible). Personally I see a lot of truth and potential impact in problem solving courts and mediation. These concepts have to be taken to a higher level of implementation throughout the government.

A Convicted Woman

Stories from prison witnessed by Ms. Harris without a doubt are heartbreaking. Here are only some of them. After being released from the reformatory for the first time, Alba stayed out of trouble for 24 years. She was convicted a second time because of confessing to jury that she was a lesbian. "They thought a lesbian is capable of anything" (Harris, 1988, p.11). Rosie was mentally not well, once in a while she was losing memory and suffering from seizures. Nevertheless she was kept with all the rest of prisoners without any special treatment. Loda was obviously cheated by her lawyer who persuaded her selling her house and paying him for filing a hopeless appeal. Martha was paroled and supposed to go home to Columbia, but C.O.s didn't know the procedures and kept her in prison for extra months. "Lila served two years for lying about a $167 welfare check" (Harris, 1988, p.64).

According to national surveys, the profile of modern woman in prison is "poor, disproportionally African American and Hispanic, and has little education and few job skills" (Price, Socoloff, 2004, p. 198). Ms. Harris from what she had seen in Bedford Hills Prison offers her perspective.

"There is a good deal of difference between the attitudes of foreign born women in 1912 and the attitudes one sees in Puerto Rican women. In 1912, people came here with the idea of becoming American citizens, learning English, raising their children as Americans… The number of foreign-born women who ended up incarcerated in the first half of the century was a smaller portion than their percentage of the city's total population in every case. For example, in 1912 those who were Russian born made up 10 percent of the [New York] city's total population, but only 8 percent of those imprisoned. Today, Puerto Ricans automatically granted American citizenship… They cling to their own language and own customs to the point where many may live here for… fifteen years and still have not learned English. They come here to make money more than to make a new home, and they raise their children… to speak Spanish, not English. They are coming into this prison today faster than any other group, and well above their percentage of the total city population ". (Harris, 1988, p.56)

This explanation uncovers only part of the reality though. It is only part of " 'triple jeopardy' to describe the complex interaction of class, race and gender that contributes to the ever increasing rates of imprisonment" (Pierce, Socoloff, 2004, p. 198). Still, "numbers and faces in … [Bedford Hills] tell a great deal about advantages and disadvantages of various cultures", - argues Ms. Harris (Harris, 1988, p.57).

Sociologists identify a number of pains faced by imprisoned women. These are: (1) disparate disciplinary practices, (2) sexual abuse, (3) separation from children and significant others, (4) inadequate health care, (5) lack of recognition of prior victimization, (6) lack of substance abuse treatment, (7) insufficient mental health services, (8) lack of education and vocational programs. (Pierce, Socoloff, 2004). Ms. Harris consistently responds to these scholarly observations with her prison stories. While all of these issues are important, some resonated with me and I will focus on those.

Sexual abuse. The Human Rights Watch reports consider that being a woman in American prison with regard to sexual abuse problem is terrifying (Pierce, Sokoloff, 2007). Ms. Harris describes numerous cases of sexual abuse of inmates by prison guards:

"It was not uncommon for a woman to have herself to give sexually in order to get her daily food. Obviously, that's no longer required but I'm told it's still one way to get a really good meal." (Harris, 1988, p.30).

She also refers to numerous love affairs, whether willing or unwilling between inmates. At the same time, she recalls that even those few prisons that allow coeducation, are a definite step back in penitentiary reforms. As long as I am sure these cases are closely investigated, feels like more attention should be dedicated to this problem.

Separation from children and significant others. "Three quarters of women-prisoners were mothers; two-thirds had children who were under the age of eighteen years" (Pierce, Sokoloff, p. 200), national surveys report. These numbers are so substantial that the mother-child-prison triangle can't be left without government attention. Ms. Harris tells about the federal program established in Bedford Hills in 1977. This program aimed to support and restore family bond between women inmates and their husbands. According to Ms. Harris, the recidivism rate for those women who participated in the program was considerably lower, 4 percent versus usual 36 percent statistics.

"Bedford was among the first prisons, and is still one of comparatively few prisons, that permit family visits over night, in fact for forty-six hours… There are four trailers on the prison grounds, two with one bedroom and two with three bedrooms. Only legally married husbands may come... Every woman I know here, without exception, praises the trailer visits…" (Harris, 1988, p. 229).

But the Bedford Hills example is not common, as Ms. Harris argues:

"There are still many jails in our country that forbid visits by children under the age of sixteen. If you're there for a year, the end of that year is when you'll next see your little children. Where contact is not permitted, you are separated from your visitor by glass or screen, and conversations are carried on by phone… There are no words to describe how totally lost to the world it makes one feel. The conversation has the aura of a séance… Some prisons permit infants to be brought into the visiting room but forbid bottles and diapers. Most prisons have no place for children to play while parents talk. They can crawl on the floor or sit and 'keep quiet'. They may not play with children visiting other inmates. 'Cross visiting' is considered dangerous." (Harris, 1988, p. 230).

Even if children are allowed to stay in prison with their mothers, those are usually prior one year old. According to Ms. Harris, who dedicated herself to developing a Children Care Center in prison, a lot has to be done to make this mother-child experience really rehabilitating and bonding. Women need to look forward to something when they come out.

Inadequate health care. "Nationwide, about 3.3 percent of women prisoners are thought to be HIV-positive, compared to about 2 percent of male prisoners" (Pierce, Sokoloff, 2004, p. 200). As Ms. Harris puts it, both the physically and mentally sick are often kept together with the healthy inmates.

"Jo Jo has AIDS and has been moved to another floor to break up her love affair with Jonsie. Vickie has terminal cancer. She has served nine years, and Sister Elaine, New York State Senator Israel Ruiz and others are trying to get her a medical discharge so that she can die at home. To date, all appeals have been denied although the doctor has written to Albany saying she has three months to live and adding that the care she has had in prison has from all indications shortened her life." (Harris, 1988, p. 22). "[F]ifteen women from here have died of AIDS in the past year and a half". (Harris, 1988, p. 59). "Jennifer… was given sixty days in solitary for writing 'properganda material'. She was housed in the new dormitory wing cubicles instead of cells, next to the woman with an advanced case of AIDS". (Harris, 1988, p. 247-248).

Such situations demonstrate an egregious disregard for basic human rights where prisoners become double victims of society.

Lack of recognition of prior victimization. The twenty-second chapter of Stories from Prison focuses on the battered woman syndrome. Personally, it is the most powerful chapter in the book. Here is how Ms. Harris describes battered women at the Bedford Hills:

"They were good daughters, good wives, good mothers and good citizens until the day or night the final straw of cruelty was piled on top of all other straws, she broke and a husband or lover was killed" (Harris, 1988, p. 219).

Fortunately, Bedford Hills Prison, according to Ms. Harris, took an effort to introduce the abused woman concept to society, media and legislature. At the time when the book was written, the New York State legislature did not believe in a self defense concept. Additionally, all crimes that originated from domestic abuse or any other type of violence were handled inconsistently. Even though Ms. Harris did not refer directly to her case in this chapter it is obvious that she draws a lot of personal emotion from it. Evidently she used to suffer from an emotionally abusive and unfaithful relationship with Tarnover (Olster, 1998). Ms. Harris never confessed in her intention to kill him but the dysfunctional relationship without a doubt contributed to her depression (Olster, 1998). Unfortunately, Ms. Harris' abusive situation wasn't the worse possible.


It was difficult to identify how much of Harris's story is objective, and how much is an attempt to put the blame for fallen women on society. Stories from Prison (Harris, 1988) should be carefully analyzed for the credibility of the authors' statements and validity of her limited research, notwithstanding its strength in ringing social bells in criminal justice. Individual stories of Bedford Hills inmates witnessed by Ms. Harris are those bells. At the same time a great deal of caution should be used when implying that these individual cases are national trends. Such statements as "there are still prisons in America today, in New York State, where inmates may have no more than two books in their cells at one time, and one of those must be the Bible, whether they want to read it or not" (Harris, 1988, p. 232) just didn't seem to be plausible. Other comments clearly reflected her complete negative attitude to justice as such. Harris says that "prison is the archetype of democracy gone mad" (Harris, 1988, p. 237) and that "anyone of these [meaning correctional officers - C.O.s]… could walk into my cell … and tear up the pictures of my sons and the manuscript I am writing… with the approval of the United States Supreme Court" (Harris, 1988, p.238) and, finally, that Chief Justice Warren Burger turned a prisoner to "a social, emotional and intellectual zombie" (Harris, 1988, p. 238) seemed to be extreme farfetched. The use of statistical information was never supported with appropriate citations thus it was impossible to establish credibility.

Since it was not the purpose of this research to validate each and every claim made by Ms. Harris, I focused on the facts that could be useful in analyzing women offenders as social phenomena.

The whole book is a call for penitentiary improvement. Obviously, the flip coin of any improvement is the lack of taxpayer's dollars. At the same time, any reform has to be effective and strategic. Decriminalization of drug use and prostitution could save a lot of money. In fact, in these two cases financial penalty should lay at the feet of drug dealers and users of sexual services.

As much as recognition of previous victimization is important, I can also see a great dilemma in it. On one spectrum is Aileen Wuornos, prostitute, abused and neglected woman, who killed her seven clients. She was charged with a death penalty (Makleod). To my opinion, Jean Harris, educated upper-middle class woman, who probably suffered some sort of emotional disorder, is on the other side of a spectrum. If we think relativistic, the way modern critical criminology is constructed, we need to possibly see even more extreme cases on the spectrum. Would it be an excuse for a school kid after arguing with a teacher or parent to start shooting in school? Remember Columbine High School (Rosenberg). Would these kids have an excuse because they were abused emotionally? Would it be different if they are abused physically? I probably don't know all these answers. I definitely believe in treatment for abused women in prisons. At the same time, I believe that no matter how thoroughly the law is constructed it can never predict all scenarios. I believe in judicial discretion with one condition. The public as well as law enforcement has to be extensively educated about women's issues. And we still have a long way to go.