Picks and Pans Review: "they Always Call Us Ladies"

updated 09/19/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/19/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Jean Harris

Subtitled Stories from Prison, this is a memoir of life in a modern women's prison. Part history, part personal observation, it is the second book by Jean Harris, who was convicted in 1981 of murdering Scarsdale Diet author Dr. Herman Tarnower and is serving a 15-year-to-life sentence in Bedford Hills (N.Y.) Correctional Facility. For the most part, it is a grim volume describing the nightmarish existence of society's outcasts living in a world of stream-of-consciousness obscenities, illicit sex and gratuitous humiliations by guards and fellow inmates alike. Some inmates are crazy. Some are evil. Some, like Harris, are relatively civilized witnesses to and victims of the chaos around them. Harris says she was once goaded by a corrections officer trying to provoke her to violence so she could be put in solitary confinement. Harris is most provocative when she is discussing senselessly harsh sentences—those imposed, for example, on women who were battered wives and killed their spouses to survive. Yet she seems naive and presumptuous when describing how women's prisons could be improved. Writing about helping inmates' children, some of whom she teaches at the Bedford Children's Center, she pontificates, "We know that many families, and many women alone, cannot give their children this kind of start in life, so it is incumbent upon us, the national family, our schools, our day-care centers, our public and private facilities, society as a whole, to do the job instead. And the work should be shared by the brightest and the best of our young graduates, college and high school both, chosen as a great honor, to serve the young and the future of our country for a year or two." Harris drones on about the hell she has been consigned to, but little of what she says is new. A great deal of it is bitter, if understandably so. While this book has its enlightening passages, it seems to exist largely to promote Harris' campaign for early parole. It seems to be a plea that says, in effect, "I am a trained educator. I am a senior citizen. I have a heart condition. I shouldn't be in this savage place." (Scribners, $18.95)

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