Jean Harris

NEW YORK–A woman who was once a nationally known educator and who became an infamous murderer has now merged those two experiences by developing and supporting education programs for mothers in prison and their children outside.

Jean Harris, a former teacher and headmistress for an elite girls’ boarding school, was convicted in 1981 of murdering her well-known diet-doctor lover, Herbert Tarnower. She was sentenced to 15-years-to-life but was given clemency at age 70. Her son was an adult when Harris entered prison.

Now 77, she is using both her fame as an educator and her notoriety as a former prisoner to speak out on behalf of the women still in prison. Speaking softly to more than 150 members of a New York women’s policy group last week, she recalled why she became involved in education for the children of prisoners.

Mothers in prison haunted by fears for their children’s future

One of the worst things, Harris said, about making the transition from white picket fences to cell bars was seeing the desperate need for nurture and learning among children of prisoners.

“Once women get cleaned up in there, they become terribly concerned about their kids’ health, education, and future,” she said. “It just haunts them.”

From a privileged background, Harris was an anomaly in prison. She had been a teacher for 20 years, in elementary, middle and high school, in affluent Grosse Pointe, Mich. At the time of her crime, she was the headmistress of the exclusive Madeira School for Girls in Virginia.

While Harris was an inmate, she created two programs to help inmates and their children at Bedford Hills, New York’s only maximum-security prison for women: parenting classes to help mothers maintain strong bonds with their children and the Children of Bedford Fund that pays tuition and other related costs for their children to attend private schools and colleges.

Currently, 34 children and young people attend schools, from nurseries to colleges, paid for by the fund. One man recently finished law school, passed his boards, repaid the grant given to him and now serves on the fund’s board of trustees. All those working at the Children of Bedford Fund, with the exception of an accountant, are volunteers and the fund claims that 94 cents of every dollar donated goes to children’s scholarships.

“It is no coincidence that most people in jail and prison are poorly educated,” said Harris. “Keeping kids in school is one of the easiest ways to keep them out of prison.”

In addition to the program Harris began, the prison administration supports a family reunion program, a nursery and the Children’s Center, all to encourage and strengthen inmates’ relationships with their families. The Bedford Hills program is unique in its scope, and any assistance for mothers in prison is rare and dependent on local efforts.

“We forget that incarcerated women are mothers when all we ask is, ‘What did she do to get in here?'” said Harris. “No matter what the reasons are for their incarceration, women in prison still have children that need to be parented, nurtured and educated.”

Eighty percent of women inmates are mothers

Harris cited U.S. Department of Justice statistics that almost 80 percent of women in prison are mothers and two-thirds of these women have children under the age of 18. The women, often the primary care givers, must relinquish the care and custody of their children and many of them struggle to maintain contacts.

“These kids are pushed through the foster care system, the worst schools, and they grow up in the poorest communities,” Harris said. “The prison cycle just continues. So, the price society pays is huge.”

At the prison’s Children’s Center, the inmates–not administrators or education professionals–teach each other about encouraging kids’ success in schools and how to talk to kids about their own incarceration.

“Some of the best teaching in the U.S. is done by women at Bedford,” Harris said.

New York State has 70 prisons. In 1995, New York eliminated funding for higher education for inmates. And, a 1994 Congressional Act eliminated Pell education grants to prisoners.

Harris blames the current tough-on-crime political climate in assessing how the criminal justice system fails women first, and then their children. “If our politicians really cared about children,” Harris said, “they would work for alternatives to incarceration and reinstatement of prison college programs.”

A parent who taught at the program accompanied Harris and agreed with her. “The program did great things for my daughter and my son,” said Precious Bedell. She was sent to Bedford in 1980 when her daughter was nine and her son was five. While her children were being raised by their grandfather, Bedell earned a master’s degree in psychology and taught a parenting class, “Parenting through Film,” about film images of mothers as role models.

“They were able to take a nine-hour bus ride from upstate and stay with me all day for visits because the center was there,” she said. “Kids don’t understand the concept that their mothers can’t leave with them when visiting hours are over.”

Sarah L. Rasmusson is a free-lance writer and graduate student living in New York.