An insider's thoughtful analysis of life behind bars

By , Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

`THEY ALWAYS CALL US LADIES': STORIES FROM PRISON by Jean Harris

New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 276 pp. $18.95

THE product of good schooling, the mother of two boys, and former headmistress of the fashionable Madeira School for girls, where students nicknamed her ``Integrity Jean'' on account of her tendency to moralize, Jean Harris attained national notoriety when she was convicted of the murder of her lover, the best-selling ``Scarsdale Diet'' doctor, Herman Tarnower.

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Although Harris testified that the shooting had been accidental - she claimed to have shot Tarnower as he and she were grappling for the gun with which she had been threatening to kill herself - the court decided otherwise. Jean Harris is now serving the eighth year of a 15-year-to-life sentence at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York. She is already the author of one book, ``Stranger in Two Worlds'' (1986), and the subject of two very illuminating ones: Shana Alexander's ``Very Much a Lady,'' and Diana Trilling's ``Mrs. Harris.''

Both Trilling, who portrayed Harris and Tarnower as a pretentious pair, and Alexander, who had a more sympathetic view of Harris, seemed to think her conviction and sentence were unfair. Harris expressed her own sense of the injustice in ``Stranger in Two Worlds.'' In this new book, however, she calls attention to a wider and deeper injustice: the inefficient, often inequitable system of criminal justice in the United States and the appalling state of its penal institutions.

Harris blends stories about her fellow inmates, the corrections officers, and her own experiences with thoughtful, yet impassioned analysis. She describes the history of the Bedford Hills facility in particular and the efforts of reformers and sociologists through the years to devise a penal system that would somehow break the vicious circles - economic, social, cultural, psychological, and moral - that perpetuate antisocial and criminal behavior. Unlike many other authors of prison memoirs, Harris looks at the system with the eyes of an educator-administrator. Like ``outside experts'' who have addressed the topic of prison reform, she covers familiar territory: free will vs. determinism, nature vs. nurture, punishment vs. rehabilitation. But she brings to her analysis the invaluable asset of having seen up close the real-life consequences of these theories and abstractions.

Although this book is filled with prison horror stories - overcrowding, inadequate health care, unjust and arbitrary behavior by some corrections officers - it is not just another diatribe against authorities on behalf of an oppressed group. Harris discusses complex issues where specific ``fault'' is hard to assign: the problems faced by inmates' families, the growing incidence of AIDS, racism (black and white), and homosexuality among prisoners. She pays tribute to good programs and caring administrators. She minces no words in delineating the antisocial, often psychotic, sometimes just plain nasty behavior of many inmates. But, as she points out, it is usually because of antisocial tendencies that these ``ladies'' are in prison. Harris finds it just plain illogical that while they are subjected to threats, intimidation, humiliating strip searches, and arbitrary punishments, prisoners are not subject to discipline in the positive sense of that word. No genuine order, no solid structure, no logic, no consistency is furnished by the chaotic system.

Harris quotes administrators who say, ```We must help them [prisoners] improve their self-image.''' ``Having thus pontificated,'' says Harris, ``they then proceed to bend, fold, staple, crush, and mutilate every bit of self-image they can attach their memos to.'' Describing the confusion wrought by contradictory memos, she concludes: ``I think what frightens me most about them is that I know I was once capable of writing such stuff myself....'' This is an insightful book, not least about the author herself.

The most disturbing thing about it all, perhaps, is that almost everyone knows America's prisons are a disgrace - a nightmare to the gentler inmate, a toughening experience for the already hardened, a breeding ground for misery and crime. The problem in public perception is worse than apathy: It is one more retreat into the mentality of make-believe, of wanting to be tough on crime without even building the prisons to house the criminals, let alone providing any method of correcting their behavior or rooting out conditions in which crime flourishes.

Harris shows how the weakest aspects of liberalism - misapplied cultural relativism and letting bad behavior go unpunished - join with the worst aspects of conservatism: disregard for prisoners' rights, insensitivity to their needs, labeling any attempt to improve their lives as ``coddling.'' If Jean Harris's book - written, she tells us, on a lumpy mattress because authorities refused to grant her a desk or writing table - can do anything to puncture public complacency, her long ordeal will have some positive effect.

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