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California and the West

An Unlikely Advocate Seeks Prison Reform

Corrections: Meditation classes led to concerns for Nevada inmates' rights.

August 18, 2000|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAS VEGAS — Maybe there's a movie here, about the woman, a Zen Buddhist from Hollywood, who comes to retire and ends up leading a meditation class in a nearby prison.

No, it's not a comedy.

After three months, she gets kicked out by the warden because she's too concerned about inmates' rights. So she becomes a crusader for reform, delivering a California consciousness to a state not known for coddling criminals.

Her brother-in-law, 1960s TV star George Maharis, could play the sympathetic governor.

And the protagonist, Mercedes Maharis, would play herself. Indeed, she has acting experience: Nearly 20 years ago, in a role that now seems strikingly ironic, she had a bit part as the warden of a Nevada women's prison.

But life doesn't imitate art.

The end to the movie can't yet be written.

It's unclear, for instance, whether Nevada's state legislators will take up Maharis' call for their prisons to be accredited, which would force them to meet the kinds of standards embraced by the nation's best-run prisons.

But a dramatic development in the state's prison system--call it a plot turn--is giving Maharis new hope for change.

Two months ago, Gov. Kenny Guinn replaced the director of the state's prisons--a target of Maharis' reform campaign--with the popular warden at a woman's prison.

The new director is a woman, too, and together--although frequently still at odds--she and Maharis say they are making significant progress in prison reform.

Unquestionably, the new director, Jackie Crawford, is better positioned than Maharis to bring change to the state prison system, which handles about 10,000 inmates in eight facilities.

But Crawford and the governor's office acknowledge the role played by Maharis in prompting a fresh review of Nevada's prisons.

"She's a crusader--very passionate about the issues she's tackling," said Guinn's spokesman, Jack Finn. "Whether she's right all the time or not is irrelevant. They are legitimate issues that deserve to be looked into, and we're looking into them."

Crawford said: "Her commitment to making changes within the system is very sincere. She and I have the same goals, even though we are approaching them differently."

Cured of Disease; Vow of Public Service

Maharis, now 57, began her involvement in Nevada's prisons as a spiritual journey, reflecting her embrace of Buddhism.

She ran a video production company in Culver City, and traveled frequently with her husband, Robert Maharis, who was a location manager for television and movie production companies.

The couple became smitten with Las Vegas while he was working here on the Robert Urich detective show "Vegas."

They decided to retire here in 1993--just months after Mercedes Maharis was diagnosed with a rare blood disease, essential thrombocytosis. Her body was creating too many platelets, clogging her bloodstream and restricting the flow of oxygen.

She agreed to try experimental medication and made a promise that, if she recovered, she would dedicate herself to public service.

The medicine ultimately cured her. In 1997, her Zen teacher retired and asked if Maharis would take over her meditation lessons at the prison in nearby Jean.

With the warden's approval, she began leading the classes for a handful of inmates.

"Meditation gives us a way to manage our personal energy and develop coping skills--which is especially important in a prison setting," she said.

But she irritated prison officials with her incessant advocacy for inmates' rights. Why didn't prisoners have proper clothing and shoes? Why was one transferred to another facility without warning? Why were inmates' teeth simply pulled when they complained of dental problems? Why did guards interrupt meditation sessions?

"I felt like I had gone to hell," she said. "I had no idea this kind of stuff was going on in my United States of America."

Three months after her arrival, the warden told her not to return, Maharis said. Frustrated, she contacted the national offices of a Washington-based inmates' advocacy group called CURE, or Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants.

Its founder, Charlie Sullivan, said he previously had tried to launch a CURE chapter in Nevada, but it lacked focus. Under Maharis, it gained purpose.

"Her persistence is inspiring," he said. "It's been a lonely battle for her, out in the desert."

Others credit Maharis with a style that has made headway in a system not known for accepting criticism from outsiders.

"It's still a good ol' boy system," said state Assemblywoman Chris Giunchigliani, who heads a subcommittee on prisons.

"Mercedes has caught everyone off guard," she said. "She's smart, eloquent and presents herself well. It was a totally different look for someone in prison advocacy."

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