The story of how a “feminist lesbian atheist Aussie geek” ended up on the other side of the world hanging out with reprobate nuns, maximum security prisoners, and Hollywood stars to work for the movement against the US death penalty.
In late September, I meet Rose Vines, manager of technology and social media at Sister Helen Prejean’s Ministry Against the Death Penalty, for a drink in downtown New Orleans in late September. I’m visiting The Big Easy for a week, and my friend Eamon, famous boy child of four mothers in Sydney, has hooked me up with Vines who is Mum No.5 and who has lived over this way for the past twenty-odd years. Rose tells me she will be wearing a “More Love Less Hate” t-shirt so I can identify her. Away from my home in the activist heart of Sydney for over six months now, I’m excited to hang out with a familiar-sounding soul.
Vines’ work with Sister Helen has taken her to prisons across the Southern US’ ‘death belt’, through the maze of bad lawyering, ideologue judges, and botched executions that get people there, and into working relationships with mega famous people like Susan Sarandon (who played Sister Helen in ‘Dead Man Walking’), Sean Penn, Doctor Phil, and Sir Richard Branson. The Ministry’s campaign to abolish the death penalty owes much to Vines’ establishment of it and Sister Helen’s social media presence, which is a key part of Vines’ work. The success of the Ministry’s social media campaigning cannot be underestimated. In the 2015 campaign to gain a stay of execution for Oklahoma inmate Richard Glossip, @helenprejean was re-tweeted over 300 million times, leveraging support from Sarandon and Doctor Phil, and garnering attention from across the globe to put pressure on Oklahoma governor “Bloody” Mary Fallin. Glossip lives today, maintaining his innocence, for which there is compelling evidence.
Over some excellent gin and tonics, I learn that Vines’ path from Sydney to New Orleans has many remarkable turns (for example, as a computer programmer and computing journalist, she met her Lousiainan partner, Lillie, through the early internet, when testing Microsoft products online). And, a particularly formative moment was June 24, 1978, when she was a participant in the first Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. If you know your Sydney history, you’ll know that this event was marked by violent recriminations from police at a time when both protest and homosexuality attracted legal penalty. The police beat up participants and arrested 53, taking them to the cells at Darlinghurst police station, where many were subject to more beatings.
Vines recounts the night spent outside the station with other participants, holding vigil for her friends inside, knowing as she did so, that her friends were being kicked, punched and spat on by the cops in their cells. Her voice cracks as she recalls how one comrade, Peter Murphy, was “never quite the same again” after the severe concussion, extended bruising, and attempts to break his bones dealt to him by the policemen on the street and at the station. It was an insight into the excesses of state power that she would never forget, and that leads her to fight against it today in its arguably most definitive form – the authority and ability to take life.
The reaches of this power are profoundly in evidence at Angola, Louisiana State Penitentiary, a former slave plantation named for the country that most slaves were taken from. Rose visits regularly, principally to see Manuel Ortiz, who has been on death row at Angola for over 22 years, facing execution for a crime he is widely believed to have not committed. Over the years, they have become friends. The drive to Angola is dramatically scenic, across a beautiful Louisiana landscape, where a backroad abruptly “empties itself into the prison”, an 18,000 acre facility with farms and factories where the inmates, who are 80% African-American, labour all day in groups akin to chain gangs. Once arrived, Rose goes through security (more on that later), and boards the bus that will take her to death row, the section in the furthest corner of the complex, which is marked with a sign reading “Death Row”, that is somewhat improbably surrounded by flowers in a neat garden. Most visits are designated “non-contact”, meaning that she and Ortiz are separated by glass, speaking through a telephone. “A lovely, lovely man”; Ortiz “works very hard to protect me and his other visitors from how hard it is” in prison, where he is confined to his cell for 23 hours a day.
The exoneration of so many after years on death row is one of the many scandals of the death penalty in America, as is its undeniable imbrication with racism and poverty. But the mere existence of the death penalty as an available punishment in the US is the problem, says Vines. It brings human consciousness downwards, making “all other punishments seem lighter, and less”. So the mass incarceration of people for decades of their lives “doesn’t seem anywhere near as bad as the death penalty”, and this helps it become acceptable. In Australia, by comparison, the population is satisfied that “justice has been served” for the worst crimes with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment or 25 years without parole. For all of Australia’s many existing human rights violations, still, “we don’t have to kill our own citizens to make ourselves safe.”
As a visitor to Death Row, Vines is also now highly familiar with its stringent governance, which she describes as breeding an extraordinary culture of compliance where “everybody is afraid to make a decision” without approval from the relevant authority. The banality and absurdity of this is reflected in what her circle of colleagues and friends have come simply to refer to as “prison bra”.
“I don’t usually wear a bra – haven’t for years”, Rose explains, adding with a chuckle, “I’m a seventies feminist remember!”” On her first visit to death row with Sister Helen, she was stopped at the security pat down and prevented from going further. The reason for her apparent security breach? Vines was not wearing a bra. “The staff were quite agitated. When I protested my ignorance, they immediately escalated the decision upstairs.” Meanwhile, Sister Helen had sailed through security and was waiting in the crowded holding room on the other side, ready for the bus. When Vines didn’t join her, she called out repeatedly for Vines to hurry, until Vines was forced to yell back “I can’t, I’m not wearing a bra!”
Sister Helen scurried back and suggested to Vines that she dash back to the car where she’d find some rags on the back-seat floor. When Vines protested “I’m not wearing oily rags, Helen!”, Prejean responded “They’re not oily! Well, not very.” Fortunately, by this time the matter had escalated to the Warden’s office and Prejean’s name carried the day and Vines was granted a one-time exception.
She later purchased a bra for the purpose of prison visits. “Now today when I’m due to visit at least one of my friends will text, ‘don’t forget your prison bra!’”
As a ‘seventies feminist’, I wonder, what does Vines think about ‘millennial feminism’ – as far as feminism can be said to have made gains in ‘waves’?
“I find millennial feminism heartening and challenging”, she replies. That is, “I think many of the gains made by seventies feminists, the second wave of feminism, became part of the ‘cosmic microwave background’ for younger women, something everywhere and unseen, and therefore unrecognised”.
“My generation changed the world”, she continues, “and made some huge mistakes while doing so. Millennial feminism reflects both of these things, by acknowledging gains made by second wave feminism while grappling with issues and thinking that my generation ignored or silenced”. Feminists today also have the benefit of the work of “women such as Kimberlé Crenshaw, who introduced the concept of intersectionality”, in the early nineties.
Vines notes that “people sometimes see what I do as ‘adopting a cause’, but that really isn’t how it works for me”. “Agitating for gay and lesbian rights in Sydney wasn’t a ‘cause’; being a feminist isn’t a ‘cause’, and neither is fighting against the death penalty here in New Orleans. For me this work is cellular: the essence of my being is to make the world a better place. Everyone and everything in our universe is interconnected. So I have a moral responsibility for all beings.”
The gifts of the ‘78ers to Sydney are well known – we’re about to see them on full display as the 39th Mardi Gras parade hits Oxford and Flinders Streets this Saturday March 4. Mardi Gras is now an international travel destination. And, as the campaign against the death penalty can attest, it has also had resonance in the international fight for life itself.