Judy Clark Is An Inmate. She's Also One Of My Best Friends

She's been one of my best friends for 22 years, but we've never chatted on the phone, swapped e-mails, shared a cab, gone out for coffee or met for a movie -- never even taken a walk together.

What we have done is meet like clockwork on the third Thursday morning of each month on opposite sides of a brown Formica table, grazing on vending machine cuisine under the vigilant stares of maximum security guards.

The odds of Judy Clark and me meeting at all, let alone becoming inseparable, were astronomical.

Years ago, I tagged along with friends who were going up to visit Jean Harris at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester, New York. As a news and talk show producer, I wanted to meet the former headmistress who'd been convicted of killing the infamous Scarsdale Diet Doctor, Herman Tarnower.

While I was listening to Jean in the visiting room, I became transfixed by a young inmate with short curly black hair and a dazzling smile greeting everyone in her path with an infectious laugh. Who was this charismatic woman in prison greens and why in the world was she in such high spirits?

Jean filled me in. Judy Clark had been convicted in the 1981 Brinks Robbery in Rockland County, New York, which was orchestrated to raise money for the Black Liberation Army. Judy was a getaway driver and not at the scene when a guard and two police officers were killed. But, as a defiant 31-year-old former Weather Underground revolutionary, she refused representation and stayed in a holding pen in the courthouse basement during her trial. Judy was given 75 years to life -- more than most of those accused of being the shooters, who have either been released or will soon be eligible for parole. Her co-defendant, Kathy Boudin, opted for legal defense, got 20 to life, and has been out on parole for eight and a half years.

Jean explained that Judy had been a "red diaper" baby who lived in Russia until she was three while her father, Joe, was a foreign editor at the Daily Worker. Her Communist parents eventually renounced the Soviet system and her mom, Ruth, went on to become a groundbreaking pollster. By the time Judy was in ninth grade, she was picketing her Brooklyn high school on behalf of civil rights. It was too late for the prom.

Jean told me that Judy had done a complete 180 -- was rehabilitated and intensely remorseful. She'd gotten her Bachelor's degree (later her Master's), co-founded an AIDS program, was raising a remarkable daughter, and teaching Parenting to inmates who live with their babies in a special nursery unit. It blew my mind that this valuable young woman might never be given a second chance.

Judy's destiny seemed preordained. Mine, too. I had grown up in the burbs under strict rule in a conformist community and done nothing more activist-related than campaign for every Democratic presidential candidate since Junior High. If my parents had planted the same seeds, would I have taken a radical route?

I had to tell her story. I wrote to Judy and told her I was a journalist. She wrote back saying she would love to meet me but wanted no publicity. I made that promise and kept it -- until now.

From the first time Judy and I sat face to face we connected on every level, ultimately raising our kids and puppies together (she trains service dogs to assist disabled vets in the PUPPIES BEHIND BARS program). We've had political powwows, shared love stories, mourned losses, celebrated victories and laughed at the insanities in her world and mine.

Getting into a maximum-security prison is no cakewalk. I learned early on not to go up on weekends when you can wait hours to be processed. And I learned the drill: fill out a form, wait until your number is called, show I.D., be cleared on the computer, stash your car keys, pills, Kleenex -- everything but quarters and bills for the machines -- in a locker. Then lug your shopping bags of food over to the intake counter for screening and weighing. Inmates are allowed two food packages a month totaling 35 pounds -- not an ounce more.

Everything but fruit and vegetables has to be hermetically sealed. Good candy cannot be labeled "chocolate liqueur" although it's been acknowledged that it does not contain liquor. No poppy seeds (despite scientific evidence to the contrary, the theory persists that even a few on a bagel or muffin can show up as heroin in a drug test); a two-ounce maximum on raisins (supposedly great for making "hooch" -- cellblock moonshine); no frozen foods; no home, bakery or deli-prepared food; no glass; no spices.

Once the food gets in, it's your turn to be inspected: shake out your shoes, go through a metal detector, get wanded and hand-stamped. Then pass through two sets of sliding bars, two steel doors overhung with razor wire, and walk up the hill to the administration building. Show your I.D. and your form, flash your hand under a UV light and push open the final metal gate. Give your form to the visiting room officer, take your assigned seat and wait for your friend to make it through the search she has to endure on her side.

Harriet Clark has had to pass through those metal detectors to see her Mom since she was a baby. I often tell Judy she's done a better job raising her child from behind bars than most of my friends did from their kitchen tables.

Harriet was eleven months old when her mother was arrested. She went on to live with Judy's folks, who regularly took her up to visit. The Children's Center at Bedford became her first playroom. Today, a graduate of Manhattan's prestigious Stuyvesant High School (98 average), Stanford University and the Iowa Writer's Workshop, Harriet is back at Stanford pursuing a writing fellowship. At thirty-one, she's a complete original -- magical, wise, warm, funny and totally devoted to her mother. And, like Judy -- whose poetry has been published in The New Yorker and who won the PEN Prison Poetry Writing Award in '95 -- Harriet is a born writer.

It's been more than sixteen years since Judy wrote a public letter of apology to the victims' families. Her hair is graying, but she has stayed slim and strong, and is constantly setting new goals. She's become certified as a chaplain and is en route to a Doctorate.

At 62, Judy's only real hope of getting out is to receive clemency from the governor. (Gov. David A. Paterson has admitted turning down her appeal because he was "afraid of being tarred and feathered.)

Clemency reduces punishment without forgiving the crime. Judy Clark, who has never forgiven her crime, will be eligible for parole in 2056. She would be 107 years old.