Guns and roses

Clarinda Harriss Raymond

October 15, 1993|By Clarinda Harriss Raymond

THE MOTHER of Francine Evangela Harris -- shot dead at the Maryland State Penitentiary a few months ago by a convicted murderer on work release -- wondered how it could have happened.

"How can a person go through a prison gate and no one check his bag?" she asked.

Many of us wonder the same thing. My own wonderment is not only that of every citizen, but also that of someone who has experienced the intense scrutiny experienced by visitors to another state penal facility, the "Cut" -- the old Maryland House of Correction at Jessup.

In the early years of my volunteer work with the Writers' Club at the Cut, I groused about the scrutiny. Visiting the prison often to meet with the club, to collect and return inmates' manuscripts, and to help edit the two books that emerged from those manuscripts, I was suspended twice for breaking rules about what could come in and go out.

Both times, I had mailed or hand-delivered a small parcel of non-approved material -- negatives of photos that were being considered for one of the books, a check my publishing company owed an inmate -- under non-approved circumstances. Volunteers can't do that, I was told firmly by Hannah Coates, the dedicated volunteer activities coordinator at the Cut. She said she felt bad about having to suspend me, but rules were rules. I understood. She made sure I understood.

I even understood -- thanks to Ms. Coates -- the time I brought in an expensive professional photographer, with prison approval, to shoot the cover photos for one of the books. The cover shot was to feature a pair of hands extended through iron bars, holding a flower. After the seemingly endless wait that always precedes any "in-house" meeting with inmates, the photographer was admitted. But his camera equipment wasn't. I had forgotten to secure approval for the camera. The photographer and I left, "guilty" camera bags in hand.

He and I returned the following week. This time we had approval for both person and camera equipment. But we did not have approval for the rose. With only an hour of inmates' time allotted to us, we --ed into the town of Jessup. There we scooped up two artificial roses (one red and one white) from the local 7-Eleven. On the way back we picked a tiger lily from a culvert.

The tiger lily was approved, but it died before we could get it inside. The roses were disallowed because they had wire in their stems -- potential weapons. So we ran up the road to an expensive Columbia florist, where we purchased at great cost two long-stemmed roses, one red and one white, whose stems stood on their own -- no wire.

Thus educated -- and reinstated as a volunteer -- I recently experimented with another kind of inside-outside interaction.

Thanks to enormous effort on the part of Ms. Coates (and of inmates John Mingo, Dennis Wise and former Cut resident Harry McClelland), I was able to reach a course called "Literature and Prisons," in which 30 of my Towson State University students shared writings one-on-one with members of the Writers' Club. The course also involved two in-house meetings between my class and the club.

By then I knew what could come in and leave, and I warned my students that, without a picture ID, plus a name, address and Social Security number on file with the institution for use at "count-out," they'd be outside during the meetings. One student, on exchange from Germany, forgot to pre-register. "Oh, come on, let me go," he argued as we prepared to leave campus for our visit. Apparently he'd grown used to the idea that Americans are sloppy about rules. "They'll understand that I just forgot. They'll let me come in."

"Let you come in? I doubt it very seriously," I told him. "But one thing I know for sure. Without your name on that piece of paper, they will definitely not let you come out!" He grasped my logic.

Years ago, I complained about this kind of caution on the part of prison officials. Not any more. I am very fortunate that the value of precaution wasn't taught to me by a tragedy like the one suffered by Ms. Harris and her daughter. The value was explained to me gently by the inmates themselves, back when I was griping about rose stems. "In a place like this, just about anything can be a weapon," one said.

A florist's long-stemmed rose box could hold a gun. Checking those roses was a very good idea. Every time my students or I walk back and forth under the Cut's metal detector, stripping off watches, frat pins, earrings, necklaces and finally belt or buckled shoes -- sometimes shaking our heads, sometimes wondering aloud if it's the fillings in our teeth that keep beeping us to rejection -- we will think about the gun that killed Francine Harris. We will be grateful for the prison's scrutiny of what comes in and who leaves.

Clarinda Harriss Raymond teaches English at Towson State University.

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