The Contributions of Mary Belle Harris to Corrections Reform


TheContributions of Mary Belle Harris to Corrections Reform

TheContributions of Mary Belle Harris to Corrections Reform

MaryBelle Harris was born in 1874. She was appointed the superintendentof the women’s workhouse on Blackwell’s island, in New York, byKatherine Davis (Bosworth, 2010). The appointment offered a platformfor Harris to institute fundamental reforms in correctional procedureand facilities in her jurisdiction. She revised institutional rulesand procedures that transformed workhouse, which in dire need oftransformation and reform. The workhouse was very overcrowded and oneof Blackwell’s island. Without prior corrections experience, Harrisfound the Workhouse severely overcrowded with an average of 700 women(p. 23). Inmates serving sentences ranging from three days to sixmonths for alcoholism, prostitution, and drug offenses were allcrowded into 150 cells and give too little to do. Harris shared withcontemporary penal reformers the belief in a classification systemgeared to individual needs, talents, education, and training inemployable fields, exercise and outdoor activities to develop thephysical and mental discipline of inmates. An indeterminate sentencethat would permit the reeducation process to occur at the inmate’sown pace was her center of interest.

Harrischanged it to a model institution in terms of the possibilities incorrectional reform. She introduced a library, an exercise yard, andan inmate classification system that made it easier for officers togroups inmates based on their sentences and the prison term theyserved. She later moved to New Jersey to head the state ofReformatory for Women at Clinton (Schmalleger &amp Smykla, 2015).Harris later served in corrections pots in Pennsylvania and theUnited States Bureau of Prisons in Alderson, West Virginia. AtClinton, she became the first women to be a prison warden in thefederal system. Her commitment to introduce the needed changeswherever she was assigned attracted many stakeholders both at stateand federal level. Harris earned a PhD at the University of Chicago.In 1936 she wrote an autobiographical book called Iknew them in Prison,she wrote about her career in penology in which she talked about herlife accomplishments, the penal reforms she had gracefully foughtfor, and paid tributes to Katherine Davis for being an influentialfigure in her correctional career. Harris history and careerrevolved around correctional reform attracting further interest intoher incredible contributions.

MajorReforms that Harris Instituted

Duringher time at the Blackwell’s Island institution for women from 1914,she did a lot of work to convince authorities to demolish thefacilities through effective recommendations (Sicherman &ampKantrov, 1980). There she introduced her rehabilitative philosophy towork that was very different from the correctional norms at the time.This was during the industrial era where most correctional centersemphasized on capacitation and restoration. She introduced newapproaches to handling inmates, including created new lines ofcommunication with prisoners, exercise yards, gardening sessions, anda library that ensured prisoners continue to gain knowledge throughextensive reading in their areas of interest. This was a veryimportant reform that transformed prisons into knowledge centers inaddition to their traditional correctional role. The practice wascarried forward by many other correctional facilities situated in NewJersey, New York and the entire United States. While at the StateHome for Girls in Trenton, New Jersey, Harris a “credit card”system through which inmates received a pay or credit based on theirbehavior. As superintendent of the Federal Industrial Institution forWomen in Alderson, West Virginia she established a cottage system forinmates rather than cells. She also provided vocational andeducational classes and religious services and entertainment. Itevident that her contributions began a new era of correctionalcenters not just as centers of state retribution but those of actualreform in the behavior of inmates. The approach was motivationalpaving the way for modern ways of handling inmates.

The correctional reforms also became the turning point in the historyof sentencing practice in the United States. She brought animperative for courts to conform to social, political, and economictrends. Since then sentencing in the United States has alwaysincluded retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, rehabilitation, andrestoration as goals of convicting inmates both males and females. Harris reform efforts changed correctional focus to each of the abovegoals because any of them predominates sentencing practice at giventime (as the police with correctional trends) in conformity withexternal conditions.

Harrisshared with contemporary penal reformers the belief in aclassification system geared to individual needs, talents, education,and training in employable fields, exercise and outdoor activities todevelop the physical and mental discipline of inmates. On theoverall, Harris is a great figure in correctional history especiallyto women correctional centers. The reform aforementioned later becamethe blueprint of general prison reform for the better part of the21stcentury. Thus, historians and stakeholder in correctional historyalike credit Harris for setting up a rehabilitation model that set adiverse trend in instituting progressive changes in the entirecorrectional system of the United States. In fact, therehabilitation model in America’s prison system owes its credenceto the achievements of Harris in her different capacities as acorrectional officer.


Bosworth,M. (2010). ExplainingU.S. imprisonment.Los Angeles: Sage.

Schmalleger,F., &amp Smykla, J. O. (2015). Corrections in the 21st century (7thed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.

Sicherman,B., &amp Kantrov, I. (1980). NotableAmerican women: The modern period : a biographical dictionary.Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Pre