My father was briefly a federal prosecutor in the '70s: he worked with the team that brought about the earliest anti-racketeering cases that eventually took apart the New York City mob. "That's why I never put your birth announcements in the papers," my mother would tell us, casually. "The FBI told me not to."
I'm not sure if that is true or not, but stories about the last days of the mob in the '70s and '80s have always interested me (and lots of other Americans. See the enduring popularity of Goodfellas). In all those stories, though, I hadn't heard about Arlene Violet until recently. When I first read about her, I felt cheated, because Violet is such a fascinating figure: She is a former nun who became the attorney general of Rhode Island, at a point when that state was nearly totally controlled by the mob. She ran on an anti-corruption policy and promised her constituents she would prosecute the Mafia, a mission that sometimes put her in danger but resulted in the prosecution of eighteen mob figures and the eventual departure of the Colombian drug cartel from Rhode Island. In addition to her work on mob cases, she also innovated the use of closed-circuit testimony in sexual-abuse and rape cases, making it easier for abuse survivors to testify in court without the risk of intimidation by their abuser.
Why isn't this woman's life story a movie? I remember thinking. Shouldn't, like, Melissa McCarthy or someone have the rights for this? Violet has come to light more recently in the podcast Crime Town, which chronicles the mob in Providence. That show only scratches the surface of her story, though. We spoke over the phone, on an especially rainy Tuesday, and she told me about her career in government and her love of writing and theater.
Kaitlyn Greenidge: How did you get involved in politics?
Arlene Violet: Well, I was a nun for 23 years. I was involved doing inner-city work … Six of the nuns, we would live in the poorest neighborhoods in Rhode Island. Back in those days, they had a thing called "caveat emptor," so if some poor person bought a refrigerator and it didn't work, that was too bad. It was buyer beware, OK? The first thing I wanted to know: Was that actually the law? And if so, how could we change it?
My religious order, Sisters of Mercy, gave me permission to go to law school, because I really wanted to do public-interest law. Living in those neighborhoods, which were high-crime neighborhoods, the people that were victimized had absolutely no rights, and would be dragged into court three or four times. Then they would show up the fifth or sixth time and be told, "Oh, we disposed of that matter …" or "We had a plea bargain." And they had absolutely no input into the case, which really undermines all victims. I didn't think that was particularly a good idea.
I did public-interest law because of the crime, and the lack of rights that people had who were poor, that were victimized, and the fact that the organized-crime center of New England was run out of Providence, Rhode Island. There was a lot of public corruption, and the Columbian drug cartel moved into this very poor area in Central Falls, Rhode Island. The only person that could do anything about that was the attorney general, because you are the prosecutor in the state.
KG: Did you know about the crime and lack of rights before you became a lawyer, or was this something you discovered as you worked in the neighborhoods?