Sister Janet in an akimbo stance

The Velvet Hammer

Written by Kimberly Winston

Sr. Janet Harris ’60 tackles juvenile justice with a blend of faith and relentlessness that has freed the innocent and raised awareness of the injustices in a flawed system.

Everything about Sr. Janet Harris ’60, P.B.V.M., speaks of gentleness. A blue fleece beret covers her snowy white locks, wire-rimmed glasses frame pale blue eyes set off by fine lines, and her body is swathed in a double layer of creamy pastel sweaters over a flowing skirt. Her voice is so soft people sometimes lean forward to catch her words.

That’s usually where the illusion ends.

“I always say God is a mystery. A mystery and a pain in the butt,” she says, her words lightly tinged with the tones of her Bronx childhood. “But I am stubborn. I am like a mountain goat that just puts one foot in front of the other. Because I have the big picture. I’ve been in those prisons and I know what they are like.”

Not the words one might expect from an 80-year-old nun, but then Sr. Janet is one of the most outspoken and tireless advocates for juvenile offenders in the United States. She once grabbed a judge by his lapels in an elevator to get him to grant a young man’s lawyer more time to prove his innocence. (He did.) Another time, she walked across a crowded Beverly Hills restaurant on her knees to get Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley to help with a gang reform program. (He didn’t.) One friend describes her as a velvet hammer. Another describes her—fondly—as “a pest.” An occasional four-letter word slips through her lips, usually in reference to some prosecutor, lawyer, or judge she finds misguided. Friends and colleagues say it is this blend of perseverance and pigheadedness that has made her instrumental in winning fair representation, trials, and sentencing for countless incarcerated young Californians.

“The first time I met her, she made the comment, ‘We plant seeds and sometimes they fall on hard ground,’” says Duane Noriyuki, a longtime friend and colleague. “That is something that has stayed with me. It is part of my admiration for her. She has faced a lot of hard ground but she is dedicated to planting seeds where she can.”

That dedication has earned her awards and national recognition—among them are the honorary degree USF awarded her last December for her unstoppable pursuit of justice for children and the accolades she has received for founding InsideOUT, a writing program for incarcerated youth in Los Angeles’ juvenile detention centers. Yet in what her associates describe as typical of her modesty and acute sense of opportunity, she has used the spotlight to highlight the injustice she sees in the way our society deals with young offenders.

In 2007, there were approximately 14,000 young people detained in California state and county facilities. California is one of 42 states that allow children to be tried as adults for serious crimes. USF’s Center for Law and Global Justice reported that in 2008 there were 245 California minors serving life sentences without the chance of parole. The United States is the only country in the world that allows such sentences for juveniles, according to the center. “As for our California criminal justice system, I am sorry to say it is more like a limping horse headed to the glue factory,” she said when accepting the honorary degree from USF.

Sr. Janet’s dedication to young people in trouble began not long after she graduated from USF in 1960. While teaching in an East Los Angeles elementary school, she volunteered in a home for delinquent boys. “They were so real,” she says of those boys, many of whom were gang members. “They were pretty angry. I just felt very connected to them because they were so gut honest. Authentic. They had suffered a lot, so what they said was really to the bone.” She spent time with the boys almost every day after school for years, building relationships with them, their families and, eventually, their children.

It was the beginning of a lifetime built on listening to young people no one else seems to hear. In return, the teenagers bestow on her a trust they give to no one else, sharing with her in words and in letters things they tell no one. Most are from poor families, and many are immigrants who get caught up in the gangs that prey on their neighborhoods. They are all too often ignored by society, but not by Sr. Janet.

Sister Janet 2 
Sister Janet 3 
Sister Janet and officer 
Sister Janet at home 
Sister Janet at juvenile hall 
Sister Janet at table with people
Visting the InsideOut writer’s program office in Hollywood: Sr. Janet helps youth who have been incarcerated and now come by the office for classes and help with writing. Jacover Harrell is one of the program’s participants.
 
Sister Janet getting a hug 
Sister Janet hands 
Sister Janet Praying at Church NEW
In prayer at Holy Family Church in South Pasadena, her local parish.
 
Sister Janet sitting outside 
Sister Janet Talking with Class 2
Speaking to students at Loyola University Law School Centers for Juvenile Law and Policy.
Sister Janet talking with Ociris Galicia
Sr. Janet talking to Ociris Galicia from Homeboy Industries, the cafe and youth resource center for gang members founded by her friend Gregory Boyle, S.J.
 
Sister Janet walking with Jimmy Wu
Walking with Jimmy Wu, one of the incarcerated youths whose life was changed by her writing program. Released last June after 12 years in prison, he’s a main character in Mark Salzman’s book True Notebooks.
 
Sister Janey addressing classroom
Speaking to students at Loyola University Law School Centers for Juvenile Law and Policy.
 
 

 

In 1989, she took that interest one step further when she took on the role of chaplain at Los Angeles’ Central Juvenile Hall. When Noriyuki, at the time a writer for the Los Angeles Times, came to profile the petite, slender nun who had the attention and respect of so many tough kids, Sr. Janet asked him to lead some of the boys in writing exercises. InsideOUT was born.

“A lot of these young people have within themselves something that needs to be heard,” Sr. Janet says. “If you grow up without someone to hear you—a teacher, a mentor—you shut down. They develop that devil-may-care attitude and they join gangs. In the program, they are heard on a very profound level and they feel safe and affirmed. They begin to see themselves as a person, not just as a criminal.”

InsideOUT now has 42 weekly classes in Los Angeles juvenile detention facilities, with 27 teachers and 400 boys and girls. The kids write stories, poems, essays, plays—anything they want—and then read them aloud to each other. “She gives them hope,” says Sr. Rosina Conrotto, head of The Sisters of the Presentation, and the person Sr. Janet credits with supplying the emotional and financial resources to start InsideOUT. “She is able to work through all the garbage they carry to help them find a sense of self worth, dignity, and hope. Society looks at these kids as evil and she tells them they are good.”

One of these kids was Mario Rocha, a then 16-year-old whose case brought adult sentencing for youthful offenders national attention. In 1996, Rocha was at a party when some gang members began shooting. Soon, Martin Aceves, 17, lay dead from a gunshot wound to the chest. Another young man was shot in the hand. Witnesses identified Mario as the shooter.

Mario, a first-time offender, was sentenced as an adult to 29 years to life for the attempted murder and 35 years to life for murder. In juvenile hall, he entered Sr. Janet’s fledgling writing program, and everything he wrote, Sr. Janet felt, was contrary to the district attorney’s portrayal of a cold-hearted, gang-banging murderer.

She sensed an injustice and it energized her. For the next two years, Sr. Janet pored over the 13-volume trial transcript, questioning prosecutors and seeking an attorney who would take Mario’s case pro bono. It took two years but she finally got through to Latham and Watkins, a prominent L.A. law firm, and several attorneys, including Ian Graham.

“If Sr. Janet knows of an injustice, she will not stop until the case is taken as far as it can go,” says Graham, whose forthcoming memoir, Unbillable Hours, describes how his work for Mario at Sr. Janet’s request caused him to abandon corporate law for juvenile law. “That is the only way, barring changing legislation, that change gets made. You get one case overturned and you go on to the next one. Not a lot of people have the fortitude to do that, but she does. And at some point, there are going to be enough of these cases overturned that the laws are going to change and she is going to be a major foundation of that.”

Mario—the subject of the 2006 documentary film Mario’s Story—eventually had his conviction overturned. His new lawyers argued that his original attorney failed to adequately defend him, and they uncovered a new eyewitness who testified the shooter fired with his left hand. Mario is right-handed. After 10 years in jail and two years on bail, he was officially a free man in October 2008—a rare reversal.

Today, Mario is 30 and an undergraduate at George Washington University, where he is studying communications. He credits Sr. Janet’s commitment to him for sparking his own passion for advocacy. “She is one of the greatest examples of human loyalty and spiritual dedication,” he says. “For her, religion is not something you read, it is something you experience by giving yourself to the struggle of other people. To this day, she is one of my heroes.”

Mario's Story

Mario photo NEW Mario Rocha, 30, spent a decade in jail for a murder he didn’t commit. Thanks in large part to the perseverance of Sr. Janet Harris ’60, Rocha’s conviction was reversed in 2006. Here he shares a commentary he wrote while still imprisoned. 

“Sweet Dee,” I had written when the roof began to rumble. Lying on my stomach, pencil in hand, bare feet in the air like a teenager in love, I tried to go back to my letter, but the noise above kept on growing louder with every second, forcing everyone in the cells around me to pause in our thoughts and actions.

As the beating and banging continued above, the sound of silence crystallized down below till somebody screamed, “Dale gas, homies!”1 And slowly the flames of ignorance and hate broke out, causing even the quietest of souls to scream out in anger against the senselessness: “Radio, radio, radio!”2 

But the will of the weak-minded had prevailed. The sound of flesh beating flesh and bodies bouncing off the walls created an instant uproar.

Those who could only hear and imagine what was going on inside those other cells where black and brown were mixed pounded the steel bars that held them back. And while others screamed out racist stupidities back and forth like kids in grown men’s bodies, I simply shook my head in disappointment, in disapproval,
in disbelief. How could we, the brown and black captives of the Los Angeles County Jail system, be fighting each other after so long in the same struggle?

“Sweet Dee,” I tried to go back to my letter, “How I wish that I could hear your tenderhearted voice and look into those luminous brown eyes…” But it became too hard to concentrate, too hard to ignore the negativity and violence all around, too hard to pretend that the riot was not happening. Delicate cursive letters became dark strokes of frustration; heavy, sweaty palms smearing the pencil lead as I tried... but just couldn’t.

“Camaradas!” I screamed out. “Have some dignity, por favor.”

In the whispering shadows of the aftermath, I spent that long Thursday night mad at the fact that, in my powerlessness, my views mattered not to the mighty makers of war, that, in my criminal discredibility, I was just another follower who should not have a voice—until I spoke out!
 

Then, the ceiling, who could hear my thoughts loud and clear, finally responded, saying: In a place where the captors are still allowed to beat and bully the weak without reprisal, to trash any and all of our personal belongings with impunity, to delay delivery of our mail indefinitely, isn’t it only right that the cages of inhumanity should rattle?

I remembered how Frantz Fannon3 explained that when the oppressor becomes so out of reach in the minds of the oppressed, we can only unleash our fury at one another.

“How long will it be till I see your pretty face, my precious Diana?”

How long will it be till we the see the face of our true enemy, my people?

1. Translation: Give it gas, homies! Slang for: Go for it!
2. An expression used through the county jail to calm the noise.
3. Author of Wretched of the Earth, a revolutionary classic about the war for liberation against French colonialism in Algeria.
 

No longer a juvenile hall chaplain, Sr. Janet now splits her focus between individual cases, legislative reform, and InsideOUT’s foundation. She chooses which cases to pursue based on more than just a feeling the child is innocent. “Things happen and you say, ‘This is wrong,’” she says. 
“I don’t think of it in legal terms. I just think this (child’s situation) is sinful, this is wrong, this is evil.” It’s a word she reserves for California’s Prop. 21, passed in 2000, which raised the penalties for crimes committed by youth. “It ties the hands of insightful judges with integrity and locks them into vending machine justice,” Sr. Janet says. “It is evil.”

She fights that evil with the weapons she says God gave her—intelligence, persistence, and an energy that belies her age. “She does not have weapons like money or influence,” says Mark Salzman, who turned his four years as an InsideOUT teacher into a book, True Notebooks. “The only way she can get people to look at kids who would otherwise be invisible is by not giving up. She will keep coming back to her point, coming back to you.”

And at 80, she is not ready to slow down. She begins every day in her South Pasadena apartment at 5 a.m. with a cup of coffee and a Psalm. Her favorite is Psalm 127: “Unless the Lord build a house they labor in vain that build it.” “In other words, unless God is part of the process, you can’t do it alone,” she explains. “You are in a partnership with God. I feel that closeness.”

Then she makes phone calls—dozens of them everyday—to lawyers, judges, reporters, prosecutors, anyone she feels will help advance the cause of exonerating a young person she feels is innocent. Afternoons are often spent driving her 1996 blue Toyota Corolla to the downtown Los Angeles courthouse via sidestreets as she doesn’t trust her reactions on the freeway anymore. She parks at the city’s edge—downtown parking is $18, she says, scandalized—and takes the bus to every hearing, every appearance of one of her kids. Currently, she’s working on three major cases, including a mentally handicapped young woman serving a life sentence for a murder Sr. Janet says she did not commit, but was too afraid to stop or report.

“Janet is absolutely committed to saving as many people as she can,” says Claudia Graciosa, 
who spent six years teaching in InsideOUT. “She has never turned away, never said, ‘I need to take a break.’ She seems to believe that eventually the justice system will work if you just keep at it long enough. She has made a commitment in her heart and her mind to be there for those kids and she’s going to stay until she feels she is done.”

Much of her strength can be traced back to her time at USF and the time she spent among its Jesuits. “I have always been very inspired by their dedication, not only in education, but in social justice,” she says. “I just have great regard for how they live out the spirit of St. Ignatius. They are truly an inspiration.” She recalls that on her first day as a school teacher, she came across a prayer attributed to Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, that sticks with her to this day: “Teach us, Good Lord, to serve thee as Thou deservest; To give and not to count the cost; To fight and not to heed the wounds.”

She put that prayer to the test last year when she broke her hip. But instead of letting the injury get in the way of her work, she simply made calls from her hospital bed. She knows the work—the overall reform of the juvenile justice system—will not be done in her lifetime. While speaking before a college screening of Mario’s Story, she was asked what keeps her going. “I said it is because I know God has a sense of humor,” she recalls. “And whether we are young or old, smart or dumb, He can use us.” She then tells how Sr. Annetta, her one-time superior, took her aside one day for a gentle reminder. “She said to me, ‘God destroyed an army with the jawbone of an ass. Just think what he can do with a whole one.’”

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