Jean Harris, prisoner: Your taxes at work


March 16, 1992|By Anna Quindlen

PRISONER 81-G-98 is reading A.N. Wilson's biography of Trollope. "What a piece of scholarship!" she says in a letter, which might just as well apply to her life at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester County, N.Y. During the course of a single year, she reads many periodicals as well as biographies of Queen Victoria, Tolstoy and Lyndon Johnson and some Dostoyevsky, Gogol and Eudora Welty.

Jean Harris, the former head of the Madeira School and a convicted murderer, is one of the best known and surely one of the best read inmates in America. She writes, too, and her latest book is a collection of letters sent to the writer Shana Alexander. They raise the question of why, after more than a decade, our society still bothers to allocate scarce resources -- $25,000 a year by some estimates, $40,000 by her own -- keeping someone like Mrs. Harris in prison.

There are currently as many Americans in jail as in New Hampshire, but we have no coherent idea of the point of crime and punishment in our society. Rehabilitation? Interesting ideal, no reality. Deterrence? The recidivism rate and swelling prison population suggest otherwise.

Simple punishment? In an age of serial stranglings, serial cannibalism and serial pedophilia it becomes increasingly difficult to figure out the appropriate punishment for tax evasion or even for a single crime of passion, like the shooting of the cardiologist with whom Mrs. Harris had been romantically involved. The current enthusiasm for the death penalty speaks to growing frustration at finding a punishment that dimly fits the crimes.

That frustration surely led last week to the surreal case of a serial sex offender in Texas who has plea-bargained away his testicles in a castration deal that will keep him out of jail. Perhaps there's a place for the words "civilized society" in that last sentence, but I can't find it. Our frustration factor has clearly gone nuclear when we can acquiesce in such an arrangement.

Frustration is the centerpiece of Mrs. Harris' book of letters, "Marking Time." I didn't ask to interview her because she describes the routine she must follow after a visit: Strip, squat, cough, all for the benefit of a corrections officer. She wears leg irons when she goes to get a stress test for her bum heart.

The prison staff apparently occupy themselves with the meeting of tiny minds. Sewing machines are removed from a common room because someone decides an inmate could make a dress and sneak out disguised as a visitor. One woman makes wreaths using plants growing around the prison; when she tries to send one as a gift, she is told, "Per the captain the wild potato vine is state property and inmates can't send state property out of the facility."

Your tax dollars at work.

Mrs. Harris runs parenting courses and helps set up a summer program for inmates' kids; she is a net gain to the system, services rendered far surpassing in dollar value the cost of keeping her there. Over and over again in prison, she says, she's told "You're just like everyone else." This is usually a preamble to treating her more harshly than the others. One of the corrections officers mockingly calls her "Princess Di."

She is a 68-year-old woman with a heart condition who is eligible for parole in 1996 and ought to be granted clemency now. There seems no point in keeping her in jail any longer, except perhaps to supply unpaid help of the highest order. But how many others are there like her, not eloquent, not educated, not known, who are wasting our money while doing their time?

Shell-shocked by horrors, we want the bars and the locks, never thinking about spending wisely and well. We invest a fortune on a college for criminals, where people learn they are subhuman and act accordingly, a system called corrections that doesn't correct. Mrs. Harris is different from the rest, with her Trollope and her friends waiting to welcome her back to the world. But she speaks for them all when she says: "Don't ever be sanguine about justice, Shana. Who the hell can say what it is."

Anna Quindlen writes a column for the New York Times.

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