Harris, Mary Belle (1874–1957)

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Harris, Mary Belle (1874–1957)

American prison administrator. Born on August 19, 1874, in Factoryville, Pennsylvania; died on February 22, 1957, in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania; the only daughter of John Howard and Mary Elizabeth (Mace) Harris; graduated from Bucknell University, A.B. in music, 1893, A.M. in Latin, 1894; earned Ph.D. in Sanskrit and Indo-European comparative philology from the University of Chicago, 1900.

Mary Belle Harris was born in Factoryville, Pennsylvania, the oldest of three children. Her father John Howard was a Baptist minister and president of Bucknell University from 1889 to 1919. Her mother Mary Mace Harris died when Mary Belle was only six. John Howard married Lucy Adelaide Bailey —a close family friend—a year later. Their family grew by six sons as a result of this second marriage, and Bailey was a much-loved stepmother to Mary Belle. Harris and her brothers received an education at the Keystone Academy, a Baptist secondary school founded by her father.

Harris did not actually start in the career for which she became famous until she was nearly 40. She worked as a scholar and teacher after earning an A.B. in music, an A.M. in Latin at Bucknell University, and a Ph.D. in Sanskrit and Indo-European comparative philology from the University of Chicago. Harris taught Latin in Chicago and Baltimore between 1900 and 1910. In Baltimore, she studied archaeology and numismatics at Johns Hopkins University. In 1912, she traveled to Europe to teach at the American Classical School in Rome.

When Harris returned to America in 1914, a close friend from her years at the University of Chicago, Katharine Bement Davis— now commissioner of corrections in New York City—offered Harris the post of superintendent of women and deputy warden of the Workhouse on Blackwell's Island (now Roosevelt Island), a strip of land in the East River, between Manhattan and Queens. Harris, who had no job prospects, accepted the post, even though she lacked experience in corrections administration. The Workhouse, severely overcrowded with a daily population of 700 women, was known for its grim atmosphere. Harris, who believed that prisons should teach employable skills and rehabilitate, dedicated herself to prison reform. She created a library and permitted card playing and knitting in the women's cells in order to alleviate boredom; she also facilitated daily outdoor exercise by fencing off a section of the prison yard. She quickly earned a reputation for success based on common sense.

Harris remained at the Workhouse for three years. In 1917, the defeat of reform mayor John Mitchel forced her resignation, and, in February of 1918, she assumed the superintendent's position at the State Reformatory for Women in Clinton, New Jersey. She continued her reforms, which included a system of self-government in the cottages and an Exit Club for women preparing for parole.

In September of 1918, Harris was granted a leave of absence to join the War Department's Commission on Training Camp Activities. She became assistant director of the Section on Reformatories and Detention Houses, where she was responsible for dealing with women arrested in camp areas. She set up detention homes and health facilities in various cities in the South, including Florida, South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia.

In May of 1919, Harris became superintendent of the State Home for Girls in Trenton, New Jersey, a juvenile institution notorious for its dangerous inmates. Although plagued with continual problems, Harris was successful in establishing a system of self-government, then resigned from the State Home in 1924. The following year, on March 12, 1925, Harris was sworn in as the first superintendent of the Federal Industrial Institution for Women, a new establishment to be built at Alderson, West Virginia. She worked with the architects, overseeing all aspects of construction to ensure that Alderson would be a place of education for the inmates. It opened November 24, 1928, and, under Harris' direction, became a model institution. The innovative features of the prison included the absence of a large surrounding wall or heavily armed guards, the establishment of farming and other physical activities, a system of self-government, and the promotion of education and vocational training. Despite the relative freedom of the institution, there were few disciplinary problems or escapes.

Following Harris' retirement from Alderson in March 1941, she returned to Pennsylvania and served on the state Board of Parole until it was abolished in 1943. She then settled in Lewis-burg, Pennsylvania, served as a trustee for Bucknell University, and lectured and wrote about her activities in the world of female incarceration. In 1953, she began an extended tour of Europe and North Africa, visited her nephew in Cyprus, and inspected two Libyan prisons. She returned to Lewisburg in July of 1954 and died there on February 22, 1957, of a heart attack.

Harris was outspoken in her quest for re-form in women's penal institutions, emphasizing the need for women to "build within them a wall of self-respect," to learn employable skills which they could use upon their release, and to free themselves from dependency upon the community and/or men. She was considered a tough and powerful administrator and was recognized for her positive contributions to penal reform.


Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980.

Judith C. Reveal , freelance writer, Greensboro, Maryland

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Harris, Mary Belle (1874–1957)

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