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An Interview With Sister Janet Harris

June 14, 2007

 

 

The remarkable story of Sister Janet Harris was recently reported in O (Oprah's) magazine. She has devoted most of her adult life to helping disadvantaged young people. Part of her story is told in the recent documentary film, Mario's Story. I was so pleased she agreed to tell me more about her life and her story of faith. We met at her home in South Pasadena, California.


"If it's not about being successful, it's about being faithful." Sister Janet Harris

"No weapon is sharp enough to penetrate my soul." Mario Rocha

Spencer:

After you graduated from high school you became a nun and soon after began teaching. In 1996, while serving as the chaplain at Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles, you saw young, 17-year-old Mario Rocha convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Convinced of his innocence you began a crusade to prove what you believed to be right. You faced many obstacles. What kept you going?


Sister Janet:

I think it's my passion for justice. But, I'm also very dogged and very concerned about what I see. So, I think, it's more than talent, it was doggedness. It was like a mountain goat, you just put one foot in front of the other.


Spencer:

Just the drive to keep on going.


Sister Janet:

Yes, but it's very discouraging, very disheartening.


Spencer:

It is such an injustice when as innocent man is sent to jail. It is even worse when he is wrongfully sentenced to life. How did you know Mario was innocent?


Sister Janet:

I had started working with gangs when I was a high school teacher because I had done a documentary film about the 18 th Street gang and the Temple Street gang. And in payment for them doing the film I would allow them to come to our high school and use our campus. They could go over the fence anyway.

So, I began to observe them. They have a very definite body language. If you watch carefully you can always tell if they're telling the truth. It's like watching a ballet. So, I got in the habit of not only listening to what they said, but also to watching their body movements as they said it.

Mario was in the writing class when I was chaplain at juvenile hall. I said to myself, "He has no tattoos, he never writes about gangs." It didn't pass the "smell test." So, I began to ask kids I knew about him. They know everything. They said he was innocent.

I began to check what the police had done. One of the policemen was a former gang member. He was from a rival neighborhood. I began to check on him. He had quite a reputation for not always acting with integrity. As you open one door, it leads you to another and even more. I realized that there was a great, real possibility that Mario was innocent. I felt I knew how the system works.


Spencer:

So, you were involved in law and the system of justice before Mario?


Sister Janet:

Since Adam and Eve.


Spencer:

You were once at a gathering outside juvenile hall when then Governor Pete Wilson declared, "The best form of prevention is to get the message across that adult crimes carry adult price tags." What is wrong with this message?


Sister Janet:

Well, first of all, the people he was speaking of are not adults, they're children.juveniles. I think you can back me up on that. Research in brain science says that the brain isn't developed yet at that age. Anyone who has raised a teenager knows that they're impulsive, they're often peer pressured, and they act sometimes before they think. They don't want to make waves.

I'm working on a case now that involves a 15-year-old girl who wouldn't talk about her boyfriend because she was terrified of him. She got a life sentence because she wouldn't reveal the truth, out of fear. This is absurd.

Some gang members are just marginally involved. Some of them are sociopaths. But, to say that they're all alike and we have to sweep the streets of these young people, these "terrorists", is outrageous. I can tell you from knowing about former Governor Wilson that he used the gangs as leverage politically, as political expediency more than a strong belief. I heard him speak again in a small group in juvenile hall. There were about ten of us there and he was saying, "I really believe 15-year-olds should be executed."


Spencer:

How did that make you feel?


Sister Janet:

Well, the thing that made me angry was that no one spoke up. They all sat there and listened. When I went up to him afterward, I said, "You know, I don't agree with what you said." He then said to me, "Well, I wouldn't expect a nun to."


Spencer:

What was the purpose of the speech Governor Wilson was giving?


Sister Janet:

Well, he was running for office.


Spencer:

Who was he talking to?


Sister Janet:

It was the administrative team and the superintendent, who is a very good friend of mine. He had said, "I think, you should be there to hear what he has to say." I was appalled to how everyone behaved. He came into juvenile hall in a limousine. There was a mural on the side of the chapel showing Cesar Chavez reaching out to helps kids. I put the podium in front of the mural. And you know, he had the nerve to tell them to move it because he didn't want that mural behind him!


Spencer:

From what I read, you believe the juvenile justice, in America, is flawed. What is wrong and what needs to be done to fix it?


Sister Janet:

Well, there are people who believe that it's beyond hope. I believe that things can change. But, there's so much power in the correction system that they provide heavy influence on the legislators.

One of the things they succeeded in doing is getting the three- strikes initiative on the ballot, Proposition 21. All of these ballot measures were intended to put away kids for a long, long time and to give prosecutors more discretion. Prosecutors are barely out of the egg. You know, many are very young.


Spencer:

I think you're right. A perfect example is what went on with the Duke University lacrosse team. Suddenly now the prosecutor's on trial! It appears he may have gone too far. When that case first hit the media the sentiment was that these were rich kids who did a terrible thing. The press reports were totally against these young men.


Sister Janet:

Media muck.


Spencer:

The media was really ripping those young men to shreds and the public had no real compassion for them, based on the alleged crime and what was being told. Now, we find out that they were completely innocent. Now the prosecutor's on trial. There isn't much in the press saying, "Apologies, we made a mistake. We ruined these young people's lives."


Sister Janet:

Too many believe that being right is more important than being truthful. I call it, loyalty to the lie. I keep wanting to write a book called, Loyalty to the Lie . Well, I'm dealing with that now with Mario's case.


Spencer:

In the 1970s, your interest in helping troubled teens was set in motion one day with the help of Rosie Grier and Jackie Onassis. Can you tell me what happened that day?


Sister Janet:

Rosie worked for the city and I worked for the county. During the summer, we were desperate for jobs for the kids. We were just desperate for jobs! When I would run out of jobs - summer jobs slots, I'd phone and say, "Rosie, do you have any job slots?" We got to know each other well.

One day Rosie and I went out to South Central. He had a tape recorder and put on some music. Some little children started dancing on a slab of cement. Suddenly someone shouted, "Rosie, there's a crazy lady on the phone. She says her name is Mrs. Onassis. And she's returning your call."

Rosie went in to talk with her. Apparently he wanted to do a fundraiser at the Los Angeles Music Center. He asked Mrs. Onassis to chair the event. She told Rosie she would not only chair it, she would come and spend time in the inner city. Rosie turned to me and said, "When she comes out, I want you to come with me and we'll take her around."

I heard nothing about it for a while. One day, however, I received a phone call from Rosie. It was a last minute phone call! He said, "Can you be out here in about thirty minutes? Jackie's arriving and she wants to see South Central." I looked in my closet and I said, "Oh my God!" I just grabbed something and ran. I arrived there just as she stepped out of her car. I was surprised at how simply she was dressed. The car we were going to use to drive her around was a mess, filled with gum wrappers, cups, and spilled soda. I told Rosie he couldn't invite Mrs. Onassis to sit in this mess. Rosie just threw it all on the floor. She got in the car and never said a word.

She was lovely. She appeared very relaxed and interested. We had extra tickets to the evening event at the Music Center in L.A. We went to the police station and we asked for the person in charge. They had always been on Rosie's case for being too soft. We offered them the tickets. I said to them casually, "Oh, by the way, this is Mrs. Onassis. They were polite, but not too interested.


Spencer:

The event that evening was to raise money?


Sister Janet:

For Rosie's work. Henry Mancini played. There were many famous people. I remember during the practice sitting on the stage listening to Henry Mancini play Moon River. Ray Charles played as well. Shelley Winters was there and told me a story about a time a kid took her purse. She ran after him. She caught him and eventually pressed charges. Before the court proceedings, she approached him and asked him why he did it. He said, "All I want to be is an actor. So she said, "I'll give you lessons."

She was brilliant. She used to teach for Lee Strasberg. She invited me to some of her classes. After one class she said something I will never, ever forget. There was a young man who was doing improv and I thought he was doing a good job. She told him it was terrible. She said, "It was terrible because it came from your strength. People don't identify with strength. They identify with weakness. You need to come from your weakness and vulnerability." I've often thought of the truth in that.

So, when it was over she was very quiet and she was thoughtful and she said to him, "I'm gonna tell you something." She said, "That was terrible." She said, "Do you know why it was terrible? Because you came from your strength, you didn't come from your weakness and vulnerability. People don't identify with strength. They identify with weakness." And I've often thought of that.

One day before class she came to me and said, "One of my students just committed suicide." They were all young actors. She asked me if I would do a prayer service after class.

We went outside to the garden and she gave the most beautiful talk. She said, "You know, only five percent of you are gonna make it. Ninety five percent of you won't. I beg you not to be jealous, but, to be there for each one and to be deeply supportive during this difficult time."


Spencer:

While teaching in downtown L.A., you won the trust of many troubled teens and gang members. Once you were arrested for not giving information to the police. Why did you let this happen?


Sister Janet:

I've spent a great deal of my life around teenagers. One of the things that you learn early on is that when teens tell you something you must be very careful about sharing it.

Our girls had come that Saturday to practice for the playoffs in volleyball. Mrs. Bruni, the coach, saw some boys sitting on the bleachers. She didn't want them to be a distraction for the girls. So she asked me if I would send them away, which I did.

Boys like that say they don't have leaders, but they do. Henry filled that role. He said, "That's okay; we'll go." So they left and Henry went to a party with his brother. There was a 13-year-old boy at the party who was a rival of Henry. This boy shot Henry and his brother Larry. By the time they arrived at the hospital, Henry was dead and Larry was dying. About 4:00 a.m., a boy came to the convent to tell me what had happened. I rushed immediately to the county hospital. This all happened on the weekend and the detective was upset because it was his day off. He was trying to wake Larry to find out who was responsible. I said, "You can't do that. He doesn't even know his brother is dead!" The detective said to me, "Can you get the information?" I said I could.

I did get the information. I didn't tell them that I did not plan to share it with them. They contacted me later to ask whether I had succeeded. I said to them, "It's not my place to tell you. These young men know what happened; it's their responsibility." The police knew that by putting pressure on me they could get the boys to talk. Later I was on my way to school when the police arrived to take me to jail. Of course, when the boys saw me being taken away, they talked.


Spencer:

You have said that gang members are not viewed as individuals. How does this affect the decisions of judges and juries?


Sister Janet:

You previously mentioned the media. I think the media tends to demonize these young people. The codeword for gang is criminal. People are, quite naturally, preoccupied with their own lives. They often don't want to take the time to understand the nuances and complexities of gang life. One often doesn't understand that growing up in such a neighborhood puts a child on the margins. They will often play the game in order to not be beaten up, or worse. The media gives an oversimplified view. The view is that these children are one step below sociopaths. The natural conclusion from that perspective makes them criminals with no conscience. It is also often thought that they are not capable of changing. The only logical action is to sweep the streets of them.

There are people in the legal community who buy into that perspective. It is true of many district attorneys. They are capable of hijacking a juror. That happened in Mario's case. The district attorney had no real evidence.


Spencer:

I understand you sometimes pray to saints. Would you tell me the story of St. Francis?


Sister Janet:

St. Francis of Assisi lived around the 1100's. The people who write about him know his love for the poor, his love for hospitality, his very simple life. What is seldom written about is that, until the age of 26, he was a thug. He was rich. He was privileged. When he died that didn't fit his saintly aura, so his teenage years were minimized.

Spencer:

There's a message in that, about how you can turn your life around.


Sister Janet:

Exactly. That's why I'd love to see an opera about Francis as a role model. He was sent to jail in Perusia. When he left prison, he changed his life. He reflected on the wonderful experiences that helped him change. But whenever I see him in a garden with statues of birds and flowers, I think they don't know he was a juvenile delinquent. Given a chance, Francis moved his life in a very different direction. Our youth can do this too.


Spencer:

Most of us who believe in the Lord often talk with him. What do you say and do you ever say unkind things?


Sister Janet:

Of course. I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in New York. I lived in Manhattan, Washington Heights, and then the Bronx. I think when you grow up in an environment in which people have comfortableness with God, as you do with your family, then they love you enough for you to be honest with them. Part of having faith is the meaning that there is a spiritual being.

Sometimes we say things that aren't nice because that's what is on our mind. There's a theory from the story from St. Theresa of Avila. She was a doctor in the church, a brilliant woman. She lived in the 1500's. One day her horse slipped and she fell into the mud. It has been told she said to God, "If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few." A friend was once surprised to find St. Theresa gorging on partridge. Her friend asked, "What would people think?" Theresa said, "There's a time for penance and there's a time for partridge." Endearing stories like this reveal the secrets of Theresa's life. Heaven invaded her heart, but she never lost her head in the clouds.


Spencer:

You helped launch a program called the Inside-Out Writing Program. Please tell me about this program and what it has done to help teens who are in trouble.


Sister Janet:

I became very concerned about the fact that more and more young people were getting life sentences for lightweight things. For example, it might result from the fact that they were with someone during the commission of a crime, even though they may not have even known the plans. The laws have become increasingly punitive. I had a good rapport with many of the youth. I heard the real stories. I told myself that although I knew it would be a small voice, I felt it was important that they tell their stories. Not only that, maybe it could make people more aware. It could additionally help the writers to discover within themselves possibilities, some core of goodness.

The process is very simple. I was blessed with extraordinary teachers in the beginning: Mark Salzman, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, Duane Noriyuki, a writer from the L.A. Times, and Claudia Grazioso, whose screenplay Are We Yet There was very successful. They were people who loved and listened. They never gave advice. Youth are actually quite timid about writing in the beginning. They played their cards close to their chest. They g radually became more revealing and even read their pieces for one another. Their peers would clap or give verbal praise. This encouraged them to go deeper. There were young people in juvenile hall for two or three years awaiting trial. Many were facing life in prison.

This gave us some real consistency. Within six months they were actually saying that they had taken off their masks. It no longer mattered that they were gang members. It no longer mattered whether they were African-American or Latino or any other ethnic background. They were writers who could come together and actually share. Quite by luck, I had some very bright young people who started in the program. I simply told them repeatedly, "Come on! Come on, I need you!" One boy asked to participate because he wanted to write love letters to his girlfriend. He wanted to learn a few techniques.


Spencer:

You must be so proud of the program.


Sister Janet:

I am, but I can't take credit. You know, I saw the need, but you can't ever do anything alone. I love jazz, but it's the individual musicians contributing their music that makes the larger performance come together.


Spencer:

Earlier you mentioned Mark Salzman, not only a writer but an accomplished cellist. You arranged a concert for the inmates at Juvenile Hall. From what I read, the inmates were overwhelmed with emotion as he played. What was it like to be in that room at that moment and tell me why you think his performance was so well received?


Sister Janet:

I have to back up. At first, he didn't want to play because he knew there would be musicians in the group who liked to play popular music. He said, "The cello?" I said, "Please Mark!" Eventually he agreed, with some trepidation. So he arrived with his cello. The members of the group before him were not really musicians, but the kids loved it. They were screaming! And then comes in Mark, with his cello, to play Bach. He said to me, "This is going to be a disaster!" As he went on stage, he fell. Everyone started laughing. Not a good way to start. He played a few noted from Jaws and that kind of pulled them in. Then he said he was going to play Bach. He explained that the piece was a tribute to their mothers. They started to sniffle and some of them actually started to cry. When it was over, there was dead silence. One of the kids said, "Play that mother piece again." What we realized was that they were actually vicariously experiencing their mothers' pain over their incarceration. His piece spoke eloquently to that.


Spencer:

Have you heard my famous story of the plant?


Sister Janet:

The plant? No.


Spencer:

Years before I was working with juveniles, a boy gave me a plant. I gave the plant to Sister Irene who planted it in a garden on our grounds next to the elementary school. One day a boy who was sweeping the walkway next to the garden noticed the plant. He asked the school principal, Sister Doris, "Why are you growing marijuana in the garden?" By this time it was a bush! This is the truth! Sister Doris had a panic attack because she could only imagine that the boy would return to the school and tell all of his friends that the nuns were growing marijuana!

We all laugh about this now. She made the boy stay there and she called the police! By that time she was so nervous and so upset. When the police arrived she pointed to the bush and said, "Officers, is that marijuana?" They replied, "Oh yes it is!" She actually said, "I didn't plant it." She told them, "Sister Janet, she works with gang kids and she's the one who gave Sister Irene the plant. None of us knew what it was." The police thought it was hysterical. They pulled up the plant. The boy definitely got the message. He never went back to the school and said there was this crazy nun who works with gangs who had her own marijuana patch.

You once said, "I don't believe I hierarchies, I believe in circles." Help me understand this better.


Sister Janet:

The DA's office, like the military, is very hierarchical and intentionally functions in this manner. What I said about circles is very important to me. I was working on a case of a young girl for whom I'm trying to get a pardon. Her name is Silvia Sanchez. She went to the beach with her boyfriend who was much older and who dominated and abused her. He borrowed a car with some friends with the hope of stealing equipment from the car. The boy who owned the car confronted them. Silvia was at another part of the beach and never saw the confrontation. Others did. Silvia's boyfriend struggled with the boy who owned the car and stabbed him 17 times. Only on the way home did he tell Silvia what happened. He told her that if she said anything he would kill her and he would kill her "retarded mother."

She was too terrified to say anything. This just galls me! I went to court for Silvia. The district attorney plays his cards close to his chest. They never seem to approach advocates for the defendant. The DA discovered that Silvia was in my writing program. She sat down next to me and told me that Silvia was the only one who wouldn't talk, because she was too terrified. She told me she had to pull out all the stops. Then she said, "You know I have no heart for this. This girl doesn't deserve this." Several days later she told me again that she felt what was happening was wrong. Then I saw her again in the bathroom and she told me, "This is really difficult to do." I asked, "Why are you doing it?" Her answer was, "Because I was told to." When she faced the jury she spoke about Silvia as if she were Charles Manson.

Silvia received a life sentence. She is still in prison and is now 27. She was 15 when this happened. I was so outraged I stood up in court after the judge gave her sentence and I literally screamed at him in court. I said, "Your honor, injustice has had the last word in your courtroom!" His reply to me, which was on the record, was, "Well, if I change it I'll get in trouble."


Spencer:

On what grounds was Silvia arrested?


Sister Janet:

There's a law on the books that says that if you're at the location where a homicide takes place you can be held as accountable as the person who committed the crime. Now, there were three young people who talked to the DA. They got lesser sentences and are now out of jail. Silvia was too terrified to talk. Because she was with them, even though she didn't witness the stabbing, the DA convinced the jury of complicity.

People have ideals; they have values, but they have tensions going on. For example, one might ask, "How will this decision to go against my supervisor's wishes affect my future work?" I believe the judge and the DA thought, "Will my peers think of me as being soft on crime?" So, we have good people who make these "small" compromises. The DA did, as did the judge. People who minimize it or compartmentalize it often think, "Well, someone else will straighten it out."

Most people are conformists. My point is that because there is a tendency to conformation, there should be safeguards in place. There was no safeguard in Mario's case. There was only one witness, and that's it. I don't know the reason why the DA chose to do what he did. Did he stop and think that he had only one shaky witness? Otherwise he had only the police, many of whom are documented to lie on their reports.


Spencer:

And the DA knew that Mario's attorney was weak?


Sister Janet:

Incompetent. The DA knew it. The difficulty lies in whether what is legally allowable is actually morally right. The law allowed the DA to do exactly what he did.


Spencer:

But it wasn't morally right.


Sister Janet:

I don't think so. I think he should have been much more careful. I suspect the DA felt no moral repugnance regarding his legal lynching of Mario. He should have investigated Mario's involvement. Just because Mario had a brother who was a gang member, didn't mean Mario was one. He simply lived in a neighborhood which happened to have a lot of gang members. It's kind of like a theater piece. They play a kind of game so they don't get mugged or beaten up. Many of them have been in school together since kindergarten. They've been together on a lot of levels.


Spencer:

In the movie, Shawshank Redemption , a man is sentenced to life in prison, as Mario was, for a crime he didn't commit. That man, Andy Dufresne, is determined to somehow get out of prison. His best friend, Red, who was also in jail for a crime he did commit says, "Let me tell you something my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane." How do you help juveniles you're working with to see that hope is not always dangerous?


Sister Janet:

That's a good sentence. But one thing you cannot do is take away hope. I'm enough of a realist to know that when young people go to prison they live in a very sick environment. Many of them don't have much in the way of inner resources in order to survive emotionally. Writing really helps them. Some have a supportive family and faith in God and they may succeed. Others have little in the way of support and they deteriorate very quickly. I've known many of these young people at Juvenile Hall. They can be so full of potential and our prison system destroys that.


Spencer:

There's one thing about Shawshank. At the end of the movie you see that Red changes his mind and gets out. He realizes how to change his attitude towards life in prison. It does have a message in the end.


Sister Janet:

My experience in life is that God hasn't run out of miracles. When things couldn't get worse, often something miraculously happens.


Spencer:

In 1996, Edward Humes wrote a book, No Matter How Loud I Shout, about the juvenile justice system. In his description of your work with juvenile prisoners he said, "You are more interested in dealing with their futures than their pasts." Was Scarlett O'Hara right when she said, "Tomorrow is another day"?


Sister Janet:

I think if you don't believe something good will happen, then you've given up. And I sometimes think, it's not about being successful, it's about being faithful.


Spencer:

Mario's Story ends with some uncertainty. What is Mario doing now? Will there be another trial? Is he free?


Sister Janet:

Would you be afraid if someone had a sword hanging over your head? Even though the chances are that he will win, it's still Russian roulette. You never know the jury. You never know who the DA will be. We don't know.


Spencer:

So right now Mario is home with his family?


Sister Janet:

The president of U.S.C. opened the door for Mario. He now has a full time job at U.S.C.


Spencer:

One last question. Obviously Mario was a big part of your life and probably still is. What other cases are you working on right now?


Sister Janet:

I'm working on the case of Kevin Jackson. I'm trying to see if there is some way we can revisit it. He has a life sentence. He is an amazing young man who is sort of lost in the system. I'm also working on the case of a young boy that had 25 years added on to his sentence because he was a gang member. I'm still working on the Silvia Sanchez case. And I'm working on Jimmy Woo's case. He has three more years, but his brother is dying of MS. I want to see if I can get him an early release so he can spend time with his brother.


Spencer:

You don't have much time to rest. I have been privileged to be able to take an hour and a half of your precious time.


Sister Janet:

No, I'm so glad. You don't know how much I enjoyed this!