Mother Jones


Kamala Harris isn’t a bomb thrower—she’s a reformer. But will that play with today’s left?

DOWN ROAD 22 IN Chowchilla, behind a wall of trees, impossibly green despite the brutal summer heat of California’s Central Valley, is the country’s largest prison for women, home to about 3,000 inmates. For at least a decade, no member of Congress had visited the facility—until this sweltering Wednesday afternoon in July.

Dressed in a cream-colored blazer and black pants, a double string of pearls circling her neck, her softly high-lighted, dark hair coiffed just so, Kamala Harris is on a fact-finding mission. “This is about my training as a prosecutor,” California’s junior senator tells me later. “I like to go to the scene, and I do that with almost [any] project. I need to see it and I need to hear it—I need to feel it, almost, so that I can have some intuitive sense, as well as some theoretical or intellectual or academic sense, of what’s going on.”

Harris and a small group of aides walk through hallways lined with inmate artwork, mostly watercolors, into a small classroom where four women, chosen by the warden to describe the facility’s mental health services, are ushered in. We sit in a semicircle as Harris introduces herself, leaning forward with her hands clasped: What’s your name? What’s your offense? Your sentence? Which county were you sentenced in? How often do your groups meet? How many people attend? Are those meetings happening weekly? Monthly? What are your plans for when you’re released? The questions come near rapid-fire; the atmosphere is intensely focused.

This is the Kamala Harris that millions of Americans saw during this past summer’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearings, when her persistent questioning—despite interruptions by male colleagues—made Attorney General Jeff Sessions admittedly “nervous.”

The trip to Chowchilla was designed to bolster Harris’ bona fides as a criminal justice crusader willing to stand up to the Trump administration’s tough-on-crime agenda. (It was also one of the only interviews she has

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