If you read Piper Kerman’s memoir Orange Is The New Black or binge-watched the Netflix adaptation (and who hasn’t done that?), chances are you have wondered about the real-life woman behind Nora (in the book) and Alex Vause (the character in the show). For the first time ever, 51-year-old novelist and PhD student Catherine Cleary Wolters has spoken to Vanity Fair about her relationship with Kerman, their mutually-assured-destruction as cash smugglers for an African drug lord, and her side of their love story. Keep reading »
Now that Chelsea Manning has expressed a desire to medically transition through hormone replacement therapy, there are a lot of questions circling about what Leavenworth looks like for a trans woman, and how exactly someone might transition from male to female in prison. While Manning’s case itself is complicated, the question of what kind of healthcare someone deserves in prison is fairly simple. There are clear legal and moral arguments for Manning receiving hormones once they are prescribed by a doctor. This isn’t about what she did or did not do; it’s about the basic commitment we make as a society when we lock someone up.
When someone commits a crime, no matter how heinous, we still have an obligation as a society to provide their basic needs while they serve their time. As Lesley Kinzel argued when writing about the Michelle Kosilek case last year, “What makes us better than murderers is that we value human life, even the lives of those who don’t value life themselves, their own included.” Whether or not you agree with Manning’s release of classified information, we consider a decent life a collective value, enshrined in the basic rights that are guaranteed by our Constitution. Courts have already held that the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment confers a right to adequate medical care in prison, and medical experts and courts have consistently found that hormone therapy is a medically necessary treatment for transgender people for whom it’s prescribed. Keep reading »
Everybody has feelings about Jenji Kohan’s “Orange is the New Black.” I have all the feelings. Since the show’s debut, we’ve tossed opinions back-and-forth about the cast of characters and the powerfully written narratives that reveal the unseen lives of American’s imprisoned women. But of the many conversations that have surfaced, the most discernible for me is of the legitimacy of Piper Kerman, the memoirist about whom the show was made.
In brief, after getting involved with an international drug dealer, Kerman (a white woman) was indicted for money laundering and spent a year in a woman’s prison – you know, the usual account of a well-to-do white woman who graduated from Smith. She subsequently wrote a best-selling memoir, which was adapted for Netflix. You can watch all of season one there now; I finished it in less than a week.
The show follows her into prison and tells the backstory of several other inmates, many of them women of color. The storyline is emotionally riveting. We’re met with race-related segregation, which mirrors the actual prison experience where racial categories and separation are often strictly enforced. Piper’s race and class privilege are checked in the first episode when it’s revealed that she “read up” on prison etiquette before she arrived. One inmate gives birth in prison and comes back to her bunk child-free, showcasing the reality that two-thirds of incarcerated women are mothers and busting the myth that women who labor in prison get to keep their babies. As a birth justice activist, I wished they’d shown the inhumane way in which many prisons shackle women during labor. Keep reading »
A show about women in prison could have easily devolved into mindless titillation or stereotypical boredom. But Netflix’s breakout hit “Orange Is The New Black” has skillfully avoided either trapping. Instead, viewers are treated to a show with well-thought-out story lines, sharp social commentary, diverse, multi-faceted characters with compelling backgrounds, and stellar performances. One of these standouts is actress Laverne Cox, who captures audiences with her portrayal of transgender prison inmate, Sophia Burset.
Looking at her career thus far, it’s easy to see why some have deemed Laverne a trailblazer in many ways. Not only has she made the enviable leap from reality star (appearing on VH1’s “I Want to Work For Diddy”) to skilled actress, but she’s also a producer and transgender advocate. Laverne’s visibility as a trans actress of color is breaking barriers on many levels, and hopefully will pave the way for more rich roles created for trans actors.
I had the chance to speak with Cox and learned more about working with Jodie Foster, her relationship to her activism and her art, and the future of trans actors. Keep reading »
Everything you’ve heard about “Fruitvale Station” is true. The biopic, which won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for U.S. dramatic film at Sundance, explores the final day in the life of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old Black man from Oakland who was shot and killed by a BART officer on New Year’s Day in 2009.
The movie flashes between the past and the present, exploring Grant’s relationship with his four-year-old daughter, his mom, and his girlfriend, who was with him on the night he was shot. After a scuffle on the BART, Grant and his friends, who are all people of color, were detained on the platform. Numerous witnesses filmed the incident with their cell phone cameras, including the moment when Grant, who was unarmed and being restrained by several officers, was shot in the back. That cop claimed he had meant to reach for his Taser; he served less than one year of prison. My three friends and I legitimately bawled for the last 10 minutes of the film. Keep reading »
Almost 250 female inmates in the California prison system were sterilized — some after being pressured by doctors — between 1997 and 2010, according to a a new report. The report conducted by the Center for Investigative Reporting quoted women that had felt pestered into getting tubal ligations at both the California Institution for Women in Corona and the Valley State Prison for Women In Chowchilla. Keep reading »