Piper Kerman, author of the book Orange is the New Black and inspiration behind the Netflix series of the same name, spoke about prison reform and the rights of incarcerated women on Feb. 19.
Kerman is a formerly incarcerated women who served thirteen months in a federal correctional facility for money laundering. She participated in the drug trade in her thirties with her then girlfriend, and found herself facing the consequences, five years later, in 1998. Her time behind bars was the main inspiration for her memoir, which became a New York Times bestseller and inspired a Netflix series, which was nominated for fourteen Emmys during its first season.
As the title of her book implies, Kerman is not only interested in talking about prison reform, but also in examining the ways that incarceration specifically impacts American women. The majority of female inmates are being held for drug offenses or property crimes.
Kerman placed strong emphasis on the number six hundred and fifty — the percent increase of prisoners in the American criminal justice system since the 1980s. Not only is the number of inmates increasing, but also the length of imprisonment is extending. She advocated that women’s rights activists should do serious reflection before pushing for someone being sent to jail.
“There is nothing feminist about prisons,” Kerman said in response to a Q&A question following her talk.
Despite her harsh words about prisons, Kerman had kind things to say about the people she has met inside of them. At the time of her sentencing, she believed that she would be going to a, “violent place filled with violent people.” Instead, she was greeted by people who were the same as she was, even if they did not share her skin color, class, or sexuality.
Meeting people whose lives had been devastated by substance abuse caused Kerman to realize the harm of her previous actions.
“I believe that a lack of empathy lies at the heart of every crime because if we were connected to the pain we might cause, we might choose differently,” said Kerman.
In the end, she came to see her crime as not really being different from the crimes of the others she was incarcerated with.
During her talk, Kerman was explicit in stating that criminal justice reform does not end with legalizing marijuana.
“Jail and court reforms are the heart of the matter,” she said, arguing that the emphasis should be placed on the front end of the system.
From her perspective, this means to reform policing, sheriffs, prosecutors, and judges, as well as for reconsideration of how America treats children who have contact with the justice system. More controversially, she described that there is a “law of diminishing returns on lengthy sentences.”
“We need to not only fix sentencing for drug offenses and property crimes,” said Kerman. “We also need to take a hard look at how we handle crimes of violence and what we think lengthy sentences accomplish.”
Although Kerman stated that the prison crisis the country is facing is huge, she is not pessimistic. She believes that the answer relies on Americans waking up to the change that they are capable of making.
“It’s that connection we have with one another that helps us understand our own power in the world,” she said. “It helps us to understand how to make better choices; to do good instead of doing harm.”
Kerman currently lives with her husband in Columbus, Ohio, where she teaches writing classes at the Marion Correctional Institution and the Ohio Reformatory for Women. She also travels across the country to give speeches advocating for the rights of prisoners.