Book Review #32: “Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison”

Orange_Is_the_New_Black_book_cover

Image Credit: Wikipedia

At the end of April, during a long weekend with Al and his parents, I found this paperback while visiting the Virginia Avenue Mall in Clarksville, Virginia. There were so many books – It was a really cool indoor, two-story flea market. I was hunting for something else, but for $4.00, I couldn’t pass this up!

I haven’t watched the series on Netflix, but I’ve always been curious about it. I knew it was based on a true story / inspired by true events, but I didn’t realize that Piper Kerman had written a book about it!

This was another book that I finished quickly, but forgot to write the review. I’m trying really hard to break this habit! I think it only took me about two weeks to read.

It was crazy to read about how Piper’s unfortunate globe-trotting escapades caught up with her several YEARS later. She was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison, and served her time in three different facilities.

Having only learned about prison from books and other media, reading a first-hand account from a woman who was not a typical inmate was eye-opening, and oddly fascinating. I say “not typical” because Piper was well-educated (She graduated from Smith College before getting involved with her criminal activities), and had an immense support system on the outside.

She did a fantastic job of painting the experience for the reader – I felt like I was right beside her the entire time. I really got to know Piper, as well as all the women around her. I went through many emotions – I laughed, I teared up, I wanted to scream. Mostly, I laughed. I personally think Piper tried to make the very best of her not-so-desirable situation, and I think she handled it really well.

I didn’t want to put the book down. I started to limit myself to only 1-2 chapters per night, because I wanted to read 5-6. It’s no wonder that this book has transformed into a successful series on Netflix.

Kerman did a great job with details, and made sure that the reader got as much of the full experience of her 15 months between Danbury, Connecticut; Oklahoma City; and Chicago as possible. It was also really interesting to go back in time, in a way, reading about headlines and news from 2003 through 2005.

She displayed a significant amount of courage by writing this book. She gives the reader an inside look into a tough place, and she does a really good job of showing honesty, sympathy, and advocacy.

I highly recommend this book. It’s definitely not the easiest read, but it really opened my eyes. I have a better understanding of what these women go through, and how those on the outside should be better about treating them. There’s still a huge stigma around incarceration, and these women deserve better.

5 out of 5 stars.


Until the next headline, Laura Beth 🙂

Commentary #52: Thoughts on “The Keepers”

The Keepers - imdb

Image Credit: IMDb

Al mentioned this new Netflix Original series to me a couple weeks ago.

I watched the first two episodes, out of seven, alone. In retrospect, I’m glad that I re-watched them with Al this past week. We just finished the last one today. I don’t think I could have handled it alone.

Much like my Making A Murderer post from last October, I want to try to summarize the series here, and give my thoughts and feelings about it. I will do my best to limit any spoilers!

In November 1969, Sister Catherine (Cathy) Cesnik mysteriously vanished near Baltimore, Maryland. There had been an experiment where she and another nun were allowed to leave their convent and become public school teachers at the all-girls Catholic Archbishop Keough High School.

At the time of her disappearance, Cathy was going shopping for some bakery buns, and an engagement gift for her sister. When her roommate, Sister Russell Phillips, discovered that Cathy had not returned to the apartment, she notified two friends, one of whom was a priest. A few hours later, the police were called and an investigation began.

Sadly, just three days into the year 1970, Sister Cathy’s body was found in a local garbage dump, in nearby Lansdowne, Maryland. The initial investigation concluded that her skull had been fractured at the left temple, but little other evidence was found. The case remains open and unsolved.

The Keepers follows several of Sister Cathy’s students, in the present day, trying to solve her murder, and untangle the web that surrounded their beloved teacher.

Throughout the seven episodes, we learn that Father A. Joseph Maskell was the chaplain at Archbishop Keough, as well as the Baltimore Police Department, and the Maryland State Police. Prior to his arrival at Keough in 1967, Maskell was a priest at multiple churches/parishes in Maryland. Maskell stayed at Keough through 1975.

Gemma and Abbie are the primary amateur investigators in the case. They simply wanted to see Cathy’s murder solved, and to figure out what really happened. Along the way, they begin to discover the secret world that was surrounding their school, and the potential scandal that Cathy knew about.

Without going into gory detail, it was alleged that Father Maskell was committing acts of sexual abuse in his office in the school. In the episodes, several women (Jane Doe, Jane Roe, Mary, Donna, and others) describe what Maskell was doing to them. One woman, Lil, recounted how Maskell asked her to type the transcripts of the “counseling sessions” and “psychological reports” of the girls. Almost all of the reports were sexual in nature.

Gemma and Abbie, among others, start to realize that Cathy knew what was going on, and she was likely murdered to keep the scandal quiet.

Watching the first two episodes alone, I was absolutely horrified. I almost didn’t want to keep watching. What these women were saying that this man did to them made me sick.

When Al and I watched them together, there were several moments where we paused it, and said, together, “What on Earth is happening? Why? Holy freaking cow! This is absolutely nuts!”

We found that our profanity increased as the episodes went over. We could not believe that Maskell, and several others, got away with these terrible acts for so many years.

We noticed that, unfortunately, there are deep ties between the Archdiocese and the police. We’re convinced that there’s money involved, as well as rampant corruption. And this is just in Baltimore!

According to Wikipedia, there are 197 particular churches in the U.S. and the U.S. Virgin Islands. That’s a lot!

To summarize, The Keepers is a decent series. It could have been told in five episodes, rather than seven. But, it’s an important story to be told. When we were watching, we were reminded of the movie Spotlight from 2015. It’s an incredible movie, and it follows similar veins from Boston.

In talking with others on Facebook, my hope is that series and movies like these will help victims to gather the courage to come forward, to tell their stories. Abuse is not acceptable or okay in any form, but against children is especially heinous. These men (and women) should be punished accordingly. The church needs to stop “transferring” priests and others that are accused of abuse and other crimes. They need to be prosecuted. More importantly, these victims need to be believed. They need to be respected and applauded for their courage.

There needs to be justice for Sister Cathy.


Until the next headline, Laura Beth 🙂

Hot Topic #18: What’s Up With Washington?

4.1.1

Image Credit: InspirationSeek.com

Disclaimer: This post contains strong language.


Sigh.

I’ll admit, I’ve put off writing a post like this. I try to be an optimistic, positive, and enthusiastic person. I also try to bring those qualities to my writing, and the blog. There’s so much doom and gloom and bad news!

However, I cannot be silent anymore.

My shock has finally lessened, and I’ve accepted that Donald Trump is the 45th President of the United States.

Does “accepted” that mean that I agree with it? Does that mean I’m okay with it?

Absolutely fucking not.


What I mean (or what I’m trying to say) is that I know / understand that Trump is our President now, and we all have to deal with it.

As I’ve attempted to write this post in a coherent manner for a great many days, I’m just stunned at how literally everything has changed since November.

Nearly four months ago, our country was preparing for / bracing itself to find out whether a billionaire businessman, or a powerful woman, would be elected to lead our great nation.

When I woke up on Wednesday, November 9th, my greatest fears were realized. I immediately felt sick. No, scratch that. I felt like shit. I could barely process the barrage of CNN News Alerts on my iPhone. I didn’t want to go to work. I wanted to curl up in a ball, terrified of what just happened and scared as hell for whatever was going to come next.

But, through it all, I held my head high.

I’ve had several fascinating, informative, and civil discussions with my husband, my dad, my manager, and a handful of others. I’ve attempted to swim through all the media coverage and social media discourse, and come to my own conclusions.


I want to share what I think.

Bear with me, this may get a bit lengthy.

Yeesh, you guys. I can’t even number this list – I just have no clue where to even start.

Okay.

Deep breath.

Here we go.

  • Healthcare: It’s maddening to think that they think they can simply “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act. It took SIX YEARS – Yes, that long – to enact what’s currently in place. I want evidence of their so-called solution. For more, see Hot Topic #17.
  • Jobs / The Economy: It’s nice that certain companies have said, “Yes, we’ll keep our plants / facilities in the U.S.” Will that actually happen? Who knows.
  • Immigration: His immigration ban already failed once. We shouldn’t be focusing on the countries he’s listed. The U.S. has its own problems! Plus, there are millions of refugees trying to escape terrible wars, famine, and more. Shouldn’t the U.S. government be a bit more compassionate? The FBI and the military have been focusing on terrorism since September 11, 2001 – We shouldn’t be stopping immigration based solely on fear.
  • “The Wall”: I roll my eyes and snicker every time I hear about this. This is not the answer. This is not the solution!
  • LGBTQ Rights: I’m going to borrow a quote I’ve seen on social media in the last couple of days: “It’s not about bathrooms, just like it was never about water fountains.” More to come about this, in a future blog post, or two.
  • The Dakota Access Pipeline: Everything else in Washington seems to be pushing this issue to the back burner, which makes me mad! For more, see Hot Topic #16.
  • Crime: Trump needs to get over himself, attend his daily briefings like all other Presidents in the history of our country have done, and stop using alternative facts and/or fake news. The inflated crime statistics, the 45-year-high murder rate – Nope. Try again. FALSE.
  • Relations with Russia: Once again, John Oliver is fucking brilliant. Check out his most recent episode of Last Week Tonight: Putin.
  • The Media: I lead you to John Oliver again: Trump vs. Truth. Also, the most recent frightening development – Yesterday, when several news organizations (CNN, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Politico, BuzzFeed, The Guardian, and the BBC) were outright BANNED from the White House press briefing? Yep, that’s absolutely terrifying. In that same article, Trump was quoted as saying that “… much of the press represents ‘the enemy of the people.'”
  • Planned Parenthood: Voting to de-fund Planned Parenthood because they perform abortions? Oh, my God. Give me a break! ZERO federal funds are used for abortions – Not one penny. Here’s the simplest explanation I could find: How Federal Funding Works at Planned Parenthood. For more, see Hot Topic #12.

Well, readers, this is all I can muster to write, for now. Thanks for reading / listening. You all mean the world to me.


Until the next headline, Laura Beth 🙂

Hot Topic #17: The Affordable Care Act

There’s been a lot of chatter online recently regarding the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

I started writing this post about two weeks before Election Day. It’s only been 17 days since that day, but the whole world has now changed.

Like many people, I was stunned at the outcome. I know that the ACA is now under a stronger microscope now, more than ever.


Full disclosure: I work for a health system in Virginia. For the last four years, I have been immersed in the world of healthcare and the insurance companies. My department helps negotiate the contracts between the health insurance companies, and our health system.

As with all of my blog posts that involve research and sources, I try my best to be well-read and as well-informed as possible.


The official name for the ACA is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA). It was signed into law by President Obama on March 23, 2010.

There were three main goals with enacting the PPACA:

  1. Increase health insurance quality and affordability
  2. Lower the uninsured rate by expanding insurance coverage
  3. Reduce the costs of healthcare

The law requires health insurance companies to accept all applicants, cover a specific list of conditions, and charge the same rates regardless of pre-existing conditions or sex.


On a positive note, the law has appeared to help reduce the number of Americans without health insurance.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the percentage of people without health insurance was 16.0 percent in 2010.

Between the period of January-June 2016, the percentage of people without health insurance was down to 8.9 percent.

That breaks down to a 7.1 percent reduction. Dividing that by six years, it’s been roughly a 1.18 percent reduction since the law was enacted.


In March 2016, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reported that 23 million people now have insurance due to the law.

Those 23 million people break down as follows:

  • 12 million people covered by the exchanges (10 million of those received subsidies to help pay for their insurance).
  • 11 million made eligible for Medicaid.

I’m going to stop for a second and try to answer some questions that may have arisen with what you just read.

What are the exchanges?

  • They are regulated marketplaces, mostly online, where individuals and small businesses can purchase private insurance plans.
  • They are in all 50 states.
  • They are administered by either the federal or state government.

What are subsidies?

  • Subsidies are money, in the form of a refundable tax credit, made available to certain households. The U.S. has a federal poverty level (FPL), and households that have incomes that equal a certain percentage of the FPL can get help to purchase insurance on the exchanges.
  • For example, in 2014, the FPL was $11,800 for a single person, and $24,000 for a family of four people. Households with incomes between 100 percent and 400 percent of the FPL were eligible.
  • $24,000 x 133 percent (1.33) = $31,920 per year income. The maximum insurance premium that family would pay was $992 for that year. The family could also be eligible for a little over $5,000 in subsidies.

What is Medicaid?

  • Medicaid is a government program that helps provide health insurance for people with low income, such as adults, children, and people with certain disabilities.
  • One caveat of the PPACA is that Medicaid expansion was left up to the individual states. Virginia, for example, is one of the states that chose to not expand Medicaid.

It’s tough to wade through all of this information. I can see why there have been numerous challenges and criticisms of the ACA. It’s been six years since it’s been enacted. Even though I work for a health system and I work with the health insurance companies on an almost-daily basis, it’s difficult for me to try to explain all of this.

I feel extremely fortunate that my employer offers health insurance that covers almost all of my needs. The premium is taken directly out of my paycheck, and my out-of-pocket costs are relatively low. There are certain things, such as my chiropractor visits and dermatology procedures, that are not always covered, but I’m fortunate to have a good job that allows me to pay those bills. I feel at peace, knowing that if I had to go the emergency room or be admitted to the hospital any time soon, that my insurance would be able to cover me.

Because of my job, I’ve tried really hard to immerse myself in learning about the ACA and how it works, or how it’s supposed to work. By educating myself, I’m able to think and speak more intelligently about it, and try to think ahead. The world of healthcare is constantly changing, nearly every day.


I’ll leave you with a list of resources that I used while constructing this post. I hope this post was educational, informative, and helpful.

I certainly don’t know everything, but I definitely like to learn.


Until the next headline, Laura Beth 🙂

Getting Personal #41: Declaring My Love for Podcasts

bigstock-headphones-icon-with-sound-wav-66925741-690x720

Image Credit: Capterra Blog

“If you want to stand out as a leader, a good place to begin is by listening.”

– Richard Branson


This little purple app on my iPhone makes me deliriously happy:

download-3

Image Credit: support.apple.com


Podcasts are certainly not a new thing to me. I had to create a three-part series for my Advanced Broadcast Production class at Longwood in the spring of 2011.

It was certainly interesting, but given that I hate / absolutely loathe the sound of my recorded voice, it was a challenging assignment.


Then, fast-forward several years.

For my personal phone, I upgraded from a non-smartphone to an iPhone 6 almost a year ago.

About a month into this new experience, my wonderful husband officially introduced me to the Podcasts app, and I haven’t looked back.


As I started playing around, I discovered that National Public Radio (NPR) had a lot to offer. So, I started there.

It was information overload. There were way too many to choose from!

Now that I’ve settled into a regular routine, I love listening to these episodes in my car. I almost always play at least one episode to get me through the drive to and from work, five days a week. My commute is roughly 30 miles, and it takes anywhere from 35-45 minutes to get to and fro (sometimes longer), so these anecdotes have definitely kept me entertained!


Here’s my current podcast playlist (alphabetical order):

Out of this list, there’s seven that are produced by NPR, and I love all of them.

Ask Me Another and Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! both satiate my game show and trivia palates on a weekly basis. I’m actually hoping to get on both programs, at some point.

I love learning about history and cool stories – Most of these podcasts give me that fresh feeling every week!

The Nerdist is hilarious – I love the cast of characters that Chris Hardwick gets to interview! The best part is I get to pick and choose what I listen to, and when I want to do so. Recently, he’s interviewed the likes of Neil deGrasse Tyson, Mayim Bialik, Summer Ash, and Sarah Jessica Parker!

Several of the podcasts that I subscribe to have a “seasonal” format. Embedded, Invisibilia, and Serial have done this. It’s like a TV show – They produce a certain number of episodes, and then take a break to prepare for the new season.

It can be frustrating at times, but I know these men and women are hard at work and dreaming up even bigger things!


I’m always looking for new or interesting recommendations. If you have any podcasts that you crush on or love to listen to, I’d love to hear them!

Also, here’s a thought:

  • If you were to dream up an idea for a podcast, what would you do, and why?

Until the next headline, Laura Beth 🙂

Commentary #43: Thoughts On “Making A Murderer”

making-a-murderer

Image Credit: elitedaily.com

Holy wow.

It took a long time, but over the course of a Friday night in September and most of today, I was able to plow through all 10 addicting, spellbinding episodes of Netflix’s hit documentary, “Making A Murderer.”

When it was released in December 2015, I remember being intrigued from the get-go. It sounded like a fascinating story.

Fascinating, well, is just one word.


The story of Steven Avery, intertwined with the stories of Teresa Halbach and Brendan Dassey, takes you deep into the community of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, bordering Lake Michigan.

With this post, I’ll try to summarize the entangled network of the cases, the intrigue, the mystery, and the questions.

The Averys are a family that have never been liked or been highly regarded by local law enforcement. They run a huge salvage yard in the county that spans for acres and acres.

Steven was the most well-known of the family to the police. As a teenager, he was charged with a few petty crimes – Burglary, petty theft, and cruelty to animals.

In 1985, Steven was arrested for the sexual assault of a woman. Despite his insistence of his innocence, he was convicted, and sent to prison for 32 years.

In 2003, Steven was exonerated after 18 years. He was released from prison, thanks to help from the Innocence Project. Their tireless work was amazing to see.

Steven was arrested again, in 2005, and charged with the murder of Teresa Halbach. Teresa was a photographer for Auto Trader magazine, and was at the Avery’s salvage yard to take photos of a minivan that Steven wanted to sell. After that, Teresa disappeared.

The sheriff’s department and volunteers find Teresa’s Toyota RAV-4 on the Avery property. Blood is found in the vehicle. Areas of the property are excavated to discover burned bones, all fragments. The key to Teresa’s vehicle is found in Steven’s bedroom.

After Steven’s arrest, he claimed officials framed him, since he had filed a $36 million civil lawsuit against the county and several county officials after his exoneration. In 2005, it was still pending.

As the case heads toward trial, there are accusations of evidence tampering, and significant conflict of interest with the county investigating the case.

Simultaneously, Steven’s nephew, Brendan, was accused of being an accessory to Teresa’s alleged sexual assault and murder on the Avery property. He was sixteen at the time. He was known to have lower cognitive function, being enrolled in some special education classes in school and reading on a fourth-grade level.

Two investigators interview Brendan multiple times, even going to his high school to talk to him during school hours. Even though he was a minor at the time, his mother was never present for any of the interviews.

In the videotapes, it appears that Brendan is being coerced into eventually confessing to his involvement. The investigators appear to ask questions that force Brendan to admit his involvement in raping Teresa and witnessing his uncle Steven murdering her. On tape, he appears to admit that he helped stab her with a knife, and then the police indicate that Teresa was also shot.

However, Brendan later writes out a full timeline of the day in question. According to the written statement, Brendan came home from school, played video games, and ate dinner. In his own words, he states that he did not go over to his uncle Steve’s house, at all.

As the episodes flow, almost seamlessly, we see the roads up to their trials.

I won’t reveal the outcomes of their trials here, but I will say that the results were not what I expected.

It was fascinating to see both trials play out in a series of one-hour episodes. It was addicting. It was gut-wrenching. It was difficult to hear the account of what this man and this teenager allegedly did to this young woman, over and over.

Seeing the media coverage and their involvement made me realize how tough that work ethic is. The press conferences appeared to never end. The blending of the lawyers and attorneys for both sides was almost intoxicating.

Personally, I thought the filmmakers did an excellent job of showcasing both the prosecution and the defense. It was amazing to see all the work and research and presentations that were put into Steven’s and Brendan’s trials.

As a paralegal student, I was excited to see the potential work that I could be doing unfolding in front of my eyes. Besides excited, I felt a mix of emotions – Preparing for a trial, any trial, is complicated and stressful. The work that I will do one day can literally make or break a case for the client.

Overall, this series grabbed me by the collar and never let go. I wanted to marathon it all at once. Once the end credits started rolling, I wanted to click “Next” and not stop.

I feel terrible that the Averys were targeted by county officials for years. It appears that Steven always had a target on his back. He was wrongfully imprisoned for 18 long years. He, unfortunately, was not innocent until proven guilty.

However, with that said, the twists and turns of this series has left me unsettled.

Is there still justice in this world?

Is anyone still innocent until proven guilty?

Do we need to pay closer attention to law enforcement in terms of conflict of interest, bias, evidence tampering, and so on?

I feel it’s worth mentioning here that Steven and Brendan are, and Teresa was, white. Almost all of the main players / characters involved in this story are white. While watching, I wondered if it would have been a different story if a different race, or races, was involved in these cases. I say all of this carefully, considering the hotbed of emotions that has surrounded race relations and police involvement.

As stated in the series, we may never know what truly happened to Teresa Halbach.

However, the stories of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey continue.

In July, Netflix announced that a second season was being produced.

As recently as August 12, new developments in one of their cases have made national news.

It was another twist in a long, winding road that’s lasted over 10 years now.

I’m eagerly looking forward to what Netflix releases as the second season. I’m also watching the news more closely these days, interested in any shred of information on the case in question.

This series was a different, addicting spin on a true-crime story that spans multiple families, law enforcement agencies, and zeroes in on a small Wisconsin community. Like much of the nation, I’m on the edge of my seat now, where I can hardly wait to see what happens next.


Until the next headline, Laura Beth 🙂

Hot Topic #16: The Fight Over The Dakota Access Pipeline

dapl-heavy

Image Credit: heavy.com

dapl-vanityfair

Image Credit: vanityfair.com

There’s been a huge fight over the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

I’ve seen a bit of chatter about it on Facebook, but I wanted to address it here.


The image below is a map of the proposed pipeline, running from North Dakota to Illinois.

Here’s the facts from Energy Transfer: DAPL Pipeline Facts

dapl-thejournal-news

Image Credit: thejournal-news.net

It’s been a mix of stop and go, for a while now.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe filed an injunction, but a federal judge rejected it.

Then, the U.S. Army, Department of Justice, and Department of Interior announced they would stop work – temporarily – under a lake that is considered a crucial source of water for the tribe.

Several news agencies have covered this issue, but I don’t think it’s been nearly enough!

What I can’t understand is how this issue has not received national coverage, up until recently. I’m glad that news outlets are starting to give it attention, but it’s tough to swallow that nearly four whole months went by (roughly May 10th to September 3rd) between coverage of the efforts to stop this pipeline and more protests.

Here’s a caption from the Political Junkie News Media Facebook page from September 12th:

 

A temporary halt on 3% of the pipeline is not a victory. Arrest warrants issued for Amy Goodman and Jill Stein is not justice. Hiring private mercenaries to combat peaceful protestors is not protecting their 1st amendment.

It’s terrorism. Don’t let this story die. #nodapl #rezpectourwater

While searching for more information on Facebook, I stumbled on the US Uncut page.

I then found this link:

 

That headline, alone, convinces me that this story needs to be explored, investigated, and told, not ignored.

dapl-overpasslightbrigade

Image Credit: overpasslightbrigade.org

People Over Pipelines.

#NoDAPL


Until the next headline, Laura Beth 🙂