EDUCATION BEHIND BARS
A Glimpse into the Imprisonment of Jean Harris
To get a glimpse into the world of Jean Harris, who wrote Marking
Time: Letters From Jean Harris to Shana Alexander while
in prison, all one needs to do is read her brief preface
to the book. In it she writes that her letters to “open
a small window on a women’s prison and a woman’s
Harris served 12 years at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility
for the murder of her long-time significant other, Dr. Herman
Tarnower, author of the best-seller, The Complete Scarsdale Medical
Diet. Mrs. Harris, who was headmistress of The Madeira
Girls’ School, shot Dr. Tarnower at his home in Scarsdale,
New York on March 10, 1980. She was found guilty of 2nd degree
murder at trial and entered Bedford Hills in March 1981.
Her 15 years to life sentence was commuted by New York Governor
Mario Cuomo in December 1992.
The case was a sensation and
spawned books and a made-for-television movie. Author and
journalist Shana Alexander covered the murder trial and wrote
the book, Very Much A Lady, about the proceedings.
Jean Harris said she never read the book, but did become
good friends with Ms. Alexander. Harris telephoned Shana
Alexander while in prison and the two started a correspondence
that lasted over a decade. Harris’ letters to Alexander
from January 1989 to February 1991, written at Bedford Hills,
comprise Marking Time, her third book published while
writes in her preface that although she spoke to her immediate
family and saw them when they came to visit her, her letters
to Alexander came to be her “steam vent.”
speaks from the heart about her hopes and fears, her feelings
is prison was a constant “drip,
drip, drip” that threatened to erode one’s core,
one’s very sense of self. Harris seems to relish her
opportunity to be herself and covets her private time that
she shares with Ms. Alexander. Her letters shine with a keen
sense of humanity and echo a cry for justice. She makes her
case that prison needs to more than just “public housing
for the poor.”
writes about a woman, pregnant at the age of the 38 with
her 14th child, who married the man who raped her as a ten-year
old. Harris suggests that the woman does not have to bear
so many children. The woman countered with “(I) don’t
believe in them abortions.”
spent years helping teach a course in parenting for the inmates.
It covers how to care for an infant child to having better
communication with your spouse. The class seems to nourish
her as much as the students taking it. In a moving letter,
Jean Harris looks at the whole of her life and sees how much
she cares about children. In another letter she writes to
Alexander that she wants to cry out to her fellow inmates, “Please
ladies—there is still time left and it is in your
night Harris was awakened at 12:10 A.M. The Guard was giving
out locks for each prisoner’s
lockbox. The guard banged on each prisoner’s door,
waking everyone on the floor in the middle of the night. “We
haven’t enough soap, we haven’t any cleanser,
we don’t have any rags to clean with, but by God, we
all have locks.”
On another occasion, she writes
with incredulity that the room where the parenting class
took place was raided and the sole sewing machine was taken.
Harris muses that perhaps prison authorities feared that
someone would sew a dress and walk out the prison door.
letters were a life-line for Harris. She rails about the
lack of civil communication. She says that she lives in a “sea of verbal mush” – where
grunts and screamed obscenities were the norm. That sickness
was always prevalent—one in five inmates at Bedford
had the HIV virus. And, she cites a National Institute of
Justice study that reports that prisoners typically return
to prison within three years with a new felony conviction.
These things bother her greatly.
Marking Time is
a book about one woman’s journey through hell and hope.
It deserves to be read.
finally left prison in 1993. She was in her early 70’s.
Today, some 12 years later, she heads The Children of Bedford
Foundation, which raises funds to help the educational needs
of children of the inmates at Bedford Hills.#