Jean Harris Has Earned Her Freedom


July 02, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

The news last week that Prisoner 81-G-98 at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility was denied her request for a new trial didn't exactly grab any headlines.

And why should it? After all, it's become almost as routine for the courts to deny Jean Harris a new trial as it is for New York Gov. Mario Cuomo to refuse clemency to the former Madeira School headmistress.

Which he has done. Three times.

Three times now, Cuomo has denied clemency to the 69-year-old inmate who is serving a sentence of 15 years to life for the second-degree murder of her lover, Dr. Herman Tarnower. Without clemency, Jean Harris -- now in the 11th year of her sentence -- will not be eligible for parole until 1996.

Of the 2,200 women in New York State prisons, only 22 have been incarcerated longer than Mrs. Harris. And she is also one of the oldest inmates. Since entering Bedford Hills, a maximum-security prison, she has suffered two heart attacks and requires daily doses of several medications.

But despite her frail health and fears about having a stroke or dying in prison, Jean Harris has, in every sense, done "good time" at the prison that's been her home since 1981.

She has created parenting classes for inmate mothers and mothers-to-be. She's helped run a prison program designed to promote more frequent visits between children of inmates and their mothers. And she's written three books about women's prisons.

All valuable contributions, to be sure. But the greatest lTC achievement made by this Smith College graduate who took great pride in her "stiff upper lip" approach to life is her apparent victory over the kind of elitist attitudes she previously held.

It's been a long, hard journey for Jean Harris. She has gone from presiding over the education of girls from wealthy, privileged families to that of being teacher to disadvantaged, poor and often pregnant teen-agers: girls from a world unlike any she had known prior to her imprisonment.

In fact, you might say when Mrs. Harris entered Bedford Hills it marked her genuine introduction to the world that exists outside of private schools, society parties and a 15-year obsession with an exploitative, philandering lover.

And it marked the birth of a new Jean Harris, one who is revealed in her newest book, "Marking Time." A collection of wry, compassionate, insightful and remarkably unbitter letters written from prison to her friend, writer Shana Alexander, the letters more than make a case that it's time to release Jean Harris from prison.

You cannot read this book without wondering: What purpose is being served by keeping this woman in prison?

If punishment is the purpose of imprisonment, then this elderly woman who has served more time than many hardened criminals has been punished enough.

If rehabilitation is the purpose, Jean Harris is an exemplar of the "rehabilitated" person.

If justice is the purpose, then this proud woman -- who, if she could have put aside her pride, could have pleaded to manslaughter and perhaps received a lighter sentence -- has paid her dues.

And if control of violent crime is the purpose of incarceration, then we have nothing to fear by releasing Jean Harris back into society.

Even retired Judge Russell Leggett, the man who sentenced Mrs. Harris in 1981, has recommended clemency for her, saying in 1988: "She is not a threat to anyone. The only person she was a threat to is not around anymore. . . . Society does not gain a thing by her continued confinement."

Judge Leggett also argued that if Mrs. Harris had pleaded "extreme emotional disturbance" instead of not guilty, he believed the jury would have found her guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter. In such a case, he said, he would then have given her a two- to nine-year sentence.

Clemency is ultimately in the hands of the governor. But in arriving at his decision, he generally solicits opinions from the prison superintendent, the sentencing judge and the prosecutor. The sentencing judge, as noted above, is on record as recommending clemency.

Cuomo himself has said little on the record about his decisions to deny clemency to Jean Harris. But he has set a precedent: In 1986 he granted clemency to Luz Santana, a 36-year-old Bedford Hills inmate who, like Jean Harris, had been sentenced to 15 years to life for the second-degree murder of her mother's boyfriend.

And like Jean Harris, she used her time in prison to help fellow inmates and better herself by earning a college degree.

But unlike Jean Harris, she is no longer in prison.

It's time to let Jean Harris go.

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