I saw this book in a list of references in an article on the Women's House of Detention which I'm doing research on, I was hoping for some photos of the building and didn't know what to expect of the actual contents.
It starts out detailing the jail building and the horrid conditions, rats, roaches, overcrowding, the lousy staff/correction officers/doctors and system that was a total failure in every possible way.
The city was paying correction officers and doctors on call about $90 a month, so needless to say the motive to do work wasn't there nor were the quality of the services.
The women only jail saw mostly drug addicts and prostitutes, most all of whom were repeatedly put in there- which clearly shows how the entire criminal justice and court system were a total failure.
The book goes on to take general leave of the conditions of the jail and staff treatment of prisoners, and starts diving right into much more detailed case histories and interviews with a number of
former and present inmates. Harris' interviews took her to the worst slums in Harlem.
Her subjects, Bertha, her daughter and then Cora Mae and others recounted their time in this jail and coping with a constant barage of rats, dirty bedding with mice nests inside, toilets that leaked on the floor, the homosexual attacks on new inmates and the gang/protection racket amongst the various factions within the prison. They further recounted the lack of medical services and a number of instances where inmates with serious mental or physical problems were not given treatment or given the standard pills they handed to everyone who had a medical complaint of any kind; drug withdrawl pills, even for the flu.
Harris' interviews showed graphically how the entire cycle began, and why the women wound up being incarcerated over and over again- one woman arrested 28 times- for the same crimes. The mystery is why someone in the system didn't start thinking there had to be a better way, treatment for drug addictions and a help up out of the poverty and lack of skills that resulted in prostitution and stealing.
The lack of skilled staff and quality medical care, the city's dire budgetary shortfalls, and the poorly designed "system" all came together in the most disasterous fashion, and the results were a revolving-door of the same pathetic addicted inmates, and ineffective dealing with the root causes of the problems that brought them there in the first place.
It appears as though the "blame" was largely and inappropriately placed upon The "Women's House of Detention" when in reality, the jail was a visible and dark symptom of the much larger, totally ineffective and broken- criminal justice, legal, and social welfare system.
The problem was not so much "the building" as it was the city and the employees. I'm not so certain that the ubiquitous rats, roaches, filth, overflowing toilets and poorly trained abusive staff were not symptomatic of all such detention facilities given the budget shortfalls, poorly paid staff and overburdoned court system.
In the end, as a "solution" to neighborhood complaints it was the building that was demolished, the system apparently was not fixed nor were the budget problems addressed. Indeed, now, as then, the faces appearing in the facilities and courts are still the young black, poverty stricken addicted and hopeless people caught up in the system. The same system with it's revolving door cycle of arrest, release back on the street with no job, or money with which to buy food or pay rent, and the untreated drug addictions.
One can't help but wonder why these issues are the same today, with only the inmate faces and the addiction of choice being the bulk of any change since the 1960's
Harris' book has no photos or images, but the details of the stories leaves the readers with more than enough of a series of mental images as clear as any photos she could have included.