AT 24, PIPER KERMAN boarded a flight to Belgium wearing slacks and a nice jacket, carrying a suitcase full of cartel cash to be delivered to a West African kingpin by her heroin-dealing girlfriend. Kerman didn't run with that crowd for long, but her crimes caught up with her; she ultimately pleaded guilty to a felony money-laundering charge.
"If I had not been able to afford really good private lawyers, I would probably have served a lot more time."
Her 13-month stint in federal prison became the basis for her 2010 bestseller, Orange Is the New Black, which was adapted into an acclaimed Netflix series by Weeds creator Jenji Kohan. The show—whose second season is in the works—follows Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) as the Whole Foods-shopping Smith College alum bumbles her way through life on the inside. Orange has been hailed for its realism and its diverse and well-developed cast of female characters, but the show also has caught flak for its reliance on a privileged white protagonist. At the height of the hoopla, I caught up with Kerman, now 44, to talk about sadistic guards, crocheted phalluses, and her top three prison reforms.
Mother Jones: At what point did you decide to write about all of this?
Piper Kerman: The woman I shared a cube with for many months turned to me one day and said, "You go home and write a book about this, bunkie." I was not necessarily planning on writing a book, but when I came home, almost every single person I knew wanted to hear about my experience. I had a sense that it would interest people who would not otherwise pick up a book about prison. I wasn't writing for the choir.
Update 10/04/13 3:00 p.m PDT: Herman Wallace died in his sleep Thursday, October 3, 2013, due to complications from liver cancer. He had been out of prison for nearly three days.
Update: Herman Wallace was freed on Tuesday evening. His legal team issued a statement saying the "four decades which Mr. Wallace spent in solitary confinement conditions will be the subject of litigation which will continue even after Mr. Wallace passes away. It is Mr. Wallace’s hope that this litigation will help ensure that others, including his lifelong friend and fellow 'Angola 3' member, Albert Woodfox, do not continue to suffer such cruel and unusual confinement even after Mr. Wallace is gone."
Earlier today, the chief judge of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana overturned the murder conviction of the dying prisoner Herman Wallace, ordering that the state "immediately release Mr. Wallace from custody." But the state is appealing the decision. Wallace is one of two members of the so-called Angola 3 who, along with Albert Woodfox, has been held in solitary confinement for more than 41 years. This summer, Wallace was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. He was taken off chemotherapy in September, and currently resides in a prison medical facility. The state's reluctance to set free an aging and gravely ill prisoner highlights some of the issues covered by James Ridgeway in his award-winning story "The Other Death Sentence," an article that chronicles the graying of America's prison population, and the associated costs, both moral and financial.
Convicted of armed robbery, the men were sent to Angola in 1971. Wallace and Woodfox were Black Panthers, and they began organizing to improve conditions at the prison, which did not win them points with the prison administration. In 1972 they were prosecuted and convicted for the murder of a prison guard named Brent Miller. They have been fighting the conviction ever since, pointing out (PDF) that one of the eyewitnesses was legally blind and the other was a known prison snitch who was rewarded for his testimony.
After the murder, the two—along with a third inmate named Robert King—were put in solitary, where they have remained ever since. (King was released in 2001, after 29 years in solitary, when his conviction in a separate prison murder was overturned.) Several years ago, Wallace and Woodfox were transferred to separate prisons, but they are still held in solitary.
The Times Picayune reports that Baton Rouge District Attorney's office is now in the process of filing an appeal with the Fifth Circuit Court, and will also be asking for a stay of Herman's release. Maria Hinds, a personal advocate who's been closely involved in Wallace's case since 2008, says that for now, the warden at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Facility, where Wallace is being held, has refused to release him, and that Wallace's lawyers have filed a motion for contempt of court against the warden for violating a court order.
Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony, is the only female conductor of a major US orchestra.
Earlier this month, Vasily Petrenko, the principal conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, provoked outrage when he told a Norwegian newspaper that "orchestras react better when they have a man in front of them" because "a cute girl on the podium means that musicians think about other things." (His words have also been translated as "sweet girl," which isn't really any better.)
This all went down a few days before Marin Alsop, the principal conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, became the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms, a 118-year-old London concert that marks the end of the city's eight-week summer season of classical music.
Saddled with allegations of forced evictions, labor rights abuses, graft, and corruption—along with an estimated record price tag of $50 billion—the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, have been the source of international outrage for some time now. But when Russia's Interior Ministry announced last week that the country's so-called anti-gay law—which allows for fining and detaining gay and pro-gay people—would apply during the Games, gay rights and human rights activists around the world turned their focus to the small city on the coast of the Black Sea, one of the warmest corners of Russia.
We put together this backgrounder to help catch you up to speed on all things Sochi:
What's the deal with Russia's anti-gay law? Since President Vladimir Putin signed the new legislation—which passed the Duma with a 436-0 vote—on June 30, there's been a steady stream of reporting on what this law means for the Russian people. In short, Article 6.21 of the Code of the Russian Federation on Administrative Offenses allows the government to fine people accused of spreading "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations amongst minors" between 4,000 and 1 million rubles ($120 to $30,000). A law passed in 2012 also bans gay-pride events in Moscow for the next 100 years.
Recent attempts at gay-pride events have deteriorated into violence:
Gay rights protesters after being attacked at a June rally in St. Petersburg Ruslan Shamukov/ITAR-TASS/ZUMA
Protesters attack an LGBT activist during a St. Petersburg event in June. Roman Yandolin/Russian Look/ZUMA
Last weekend, Russian American journalist Masha Gessen—who started Russia's pink-triangle campaign for LGBT acceptance—published a gut-wrenching account in the Guardian of her own decision to move her girlfriend and children back to the United States after years living in Russia. "In June, the 'homosexual propaganda' bill became federal law," she wrote. "The head of the parliamentary committee on the family pledged to create a mechanism for removing children from same-sex families.
"Two things happened to me the same month: I was beaten up in front of parliament for the first time and I realized that in all my interactions, including professional ones, I no longer felt I was perceived as a journalist first: I am now a person with a pink triangle."
What are some other tactics anti-gay activists are using in Russia? Though anti-gay actions and sentiment have been brewing for years—this federal rule comes on the heels of several similar regional laws, which have been enacted in St. Petersburg and other cities since 2006—this law has taken it to new heights: In July, the Spectrum Human Rights Alliance (SHRA), a US-based organization that advocates LGBT rights in Eastern Europe, helped bring international attention to a Russian group called Occupy Pedophilia. Led by notorious Russian neo-Nazi Maksim "Tesak" ("the Hatchet") Martsinkevich, the group has been using social media, primarily VKontakte (Russia's Facebook spinoff), to place fake dating ads to lure gay men. Once face-to-face with the men, group members interrogate and torture them, and a video of the encounter is put on YouTube. Here's one such video from late July. (Warning: The content of the video is disturbing.)
Some of the videos are also placed on the group's website, where victims are categorized by sexual orientation and users can rate the videos. As of this writing, Occupy Pedophilia has nearly 450 regional chapters listed on VKontakte.
Screenshot from VKontakte
Larry Poltavtsev, president and founder of SHRA, explains that months ago, Martsinkevich released a video declaring his own special plan for ending gay-pride events in Russia. Though it disappeared for a while, Poltavtsev says, it recently reappeared on YouTube (see below). In it, a shirtless Martsinkevich says this is his first time directly addressing the Moscow government. He explains that it's a shame the government must sink so many resources into its gay-pride ban—dealing with civil rights lawsuits, paying out compensation, and the like. Instead, he suggests, why not simply make gay-pride events legal—but leave them without security or police presence? "This will be the first and last time," Martsinkevich concludes, "that homosexuals will try to hold their parade in Russia."
Poltavtsev also mounted a petition on Change.org to add Russian lawmakers Vitaly Milonov and Elena Mizulina, both of whom have sponsored anti-gay legislation, to the US Congress' Magnitsky list of human rights violators. It currently has more than 11,000 signatures.
Meanwhile, an April 2012 TV appearance by Dmitri Kiselev—TV anchor and deputy director of VGTRK, Russia's state-owned television and radio holding company—surfaced last week, showing Kiselev, a state employee, saying the following to a round of applause: "I think that just imposing fines on gays for homosexual propaganda among teenagers is not enough. They should be banned from donating blood, sperm. And their hearts, in case of the automobile accident, should be buried in the ground or burned as unsuitable for the continuation of life."
In an interview this week on Moscow radio station Echo of Moscow, Kiselev defended his remarks, explaining that, to his knowledge, these practices are already employed in other Western countries, including the United States. (He cited the US Food and Drug Administration as a source.)
Protestors at the Texas capitol this past Friday, before the HB 2 vote
This weekend, the Texas Senate voted to pass HB 2, the abortion bill that state Sen. Wendy Davis filibustered two weeks ago. The law bansmost abortions after 20 weeks, requires clinic doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, and requires abortions to take place in ambulatory surgical centers. The law will likely close all but 5 of the state's 42 clinics. Gov. Rick Perry has confirmed he'll sign the bill into law, possibly as early as the middle of this week.
While Davis' 11-hour stand focused national attention on this bill, Texas lawmakers have quietly slipped at least seven other bills onto the legislative agenda that would restrict women's access to abortion. All of them have been proposed since the July 1 opening of the special legislative session called by Perry to force a vote on HB 2 after Davis and her supporters successfully stalled the first vote. These special sessions are unique in that a bill only requires a simple majority to pass rather than the two-thirds majority required during a regular session.
With that advantage in hand, the state's Republican lawmakers have gone on an abortion restriction spree. Here are the bills they've proposed in the last two weeks:
SB 9: Sponsored by Sen. Dan Patrick, who also sponsored Texas' sonogram bill, SB 9 would require that abortion-inducing drugs be dispensed only at abortion clinics. HB 2 already contains a provision requiring this, though it gives providers a little more leeway on dosage choices. Combined with HB 2's other provisions, this rule means women could have to travel for hours to obtain mifepristone and misoprostol, the FDA-approved drug regimen used for early nonsurgical abortions. The law then requires them to return to the clinic for a follow-up appointment 14 days later.
HB 17: This bill would prohibit sex-selective abortions. Abortion rights advocates consider such bills, which have passed in several other states, tangential and unenforceable ploys to further restrict abortion rights.
HB 26: If passed, this bill would require women to fill out a "coerced abortion form" before the procedure, confirming they are acting voluntarily. The bill's vague wording leaves room for a physician to deny an abortion if they believe she seems coerced—even if that's not indicated on the form or said by her outright.
Abortion and minors
HB 18: Though Texas requires parental notification and consent for a minor to get an abortion, currently minors may bypass that requirement by way of a court petition. This proposed law would further complicate the red-tape-heavy process in a number of ways, including eliminating an existing rule that allows minors to move forward with the procedure if a judge does not rule within two days of a hearing.
HB 27: Taking HB 18 even further, this bill would extend the amount of time a court has to consider a minor's initial request for an abortion (and subsequent appeals) from two to five days. It would also require minors to testify about their reasons for wanting an abortion, be evaluated by a state mental-health counselor, and prove their maturity with examples like "traveling independently" and "managing her own financial affairs."
Sex ed and abortion
HB 50: This bill aims "to reduce the occurrence of abortions and the use of abortion facilities" by creating a public education program encouraging men to support women with unexpected pregnancies. That might not be a terrible idea, but the bill says that any state agency can work on the program (pregnancy info brought to you by the Texas Department of Transportation?!) and that they can't contract with any health care providers, facilities, or advocacy groups to educate the public.
HB 22: If passed, this bill would prevent any affiliate of an abortion provider from providing information on sexuality or family planning for sex ed curricula. That means any information at all, whether it's related to abortion or not. So Planned Parenthood, for example, which offers abortions (though they make up just 3 percent of their services, nationally) would be barred from providing any information—about women's health, STDs, contraception, etc.—for use in Texas classrooms.
And across the aisle…
Democrats have proposed a few bills during this special session to counter the stream of anti-abortion legislation. SB 23 would preventhospitals from denying admitting privileges to abortion-clinic doctors on the basis of where they work. Another measure, HB 45, mandates that all abortion laws passed in the Texas Legislature from now on can't go into effect until 60 days after Texas abolishes the death penalty.