The Rackham Auditorium was packed to full capacity Tuesday night as Piper Kerman, author of “Orange is the New Black: My Time in a Women’s Prison,” spoke about her experience in the criminal justice system and mass incarceration in the United States.
Kerman’s memoir inspired the award-winning Netflix series of the same name. Created by Jenji Kohan, the show, now in its fourth season, features an Emmy Award-winning and -nominated cast. The series has received widespread critical acclaim for shedding light on prison conditions and the social effects of mass incarceration in the country.
The Netflix series follows the story of Piper Chapman, an upper-class woman from New York who is sent to prison for several years after laundering drug money overseas. Kerman’s story is very similar.
After graduating from Smith College in 1992, Kerman said she felt lost and unsure of her career and became involved in trafficking drug money after entering a romantic relationship with an older woman who worked for an international drug ring. Their travels included locations such as Bali and Zurich.
Kerman now travels around the country advocating for prison reform and an end to mass incarceration. Kerman is a white, middle-class woman with a college education, a demographic statistically unlikely to be incarcerated, she said. But by writing about her time in prison, she said she hopes more people will have the drive to become informed about criminal system injustices.
“Inequality is a huge driver of all of the things that contribute to people being in prison and the American criminal justice system is ironically sort of a crucible of American inequality,” Kerman said. “We have this expectation that everyone will be treated equally in the court of law, but we know that — particularly when we expand that into the criminal justice system as a whole not just the courts — you see quite the opposite.”
Women have been the fastest growing demographic in the criminal justice system, Kerman said, and 200,000 are currently imprisoned, of which two-thirds are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes. Kerman credits the Netflix series for fostering greater conversation about those women.
“Anything that reminds us that all these people we’ve chosen to lock away are, in fact, people and not felons and convicts and all these other labeling terms,” she said. “We’re much less likely to allow folks to continue to be dehumanized in the system. I’m very glad that there’s much more attention on criminal justice reform. I think that’s a long time coming.”
The United States has the highest prison population in the world. For every 100,000 people, 724 are incarcerated, BBC News reported.
“I’ve never met a single American who is proud that we have the biggest prison population in human history, that we lock up more citizens than society has ever done,” Kerman said. “I think definitely that there’s an increasing consensus that that’s not we want to be.”
Kerman discussed three main points for reform: jail and court reform, reducing youths in juvenile prison and common sense sentencing.
“One of the things we have a lot of work to do on still is the sense that harsh punishment is something that works well for us as a culture,” she said. “A huge percentage of those people are mentally ill and the idea that we can confront problems in our society like substance abuse and addiction and mental illness with harsh punishment … is really questionable.”
Kerman said society’s reliance on prisons to root out violent crime is not an adequate solution to stifling those types of crimes from being committed.
“The idea that we rely on prisons, which tend to be very violent places, to fix that is just very dubious,” she said. “But, that’s a more substantive and cultural discussion above and beyond the tinkering with policy.”
Kerman, who teaches writing class at two different prisons in Ohio, noted the privilege University students have because of their access to libraries, art and public health centers.
“When we see communities that have those kinds of institutions … those communities tend to be vibrant and they are often prosperous,” she said. “And guess what? They also tend to be safe. When we see communities that lack those things and quite frankly have been deprived of those institutions, that’s where we see incredible over-reliance on prisons and on jails. So that’s something for you all to think about as you enjoy this amazing institution is to make sure that everybody gets access to a place like this who needs it.”
Rackham student Riya Seybrook said she was interested in Kerman’s emphasis on how race and class affects an individual’s likelihood of incarceration.
“She is a middle-class white woman, so I think it would have been really easy for her to come in and not talk about that at all so I was really pleasantly surprised,” Seybrook said.
Eastern Michigan University student Elaine Barker said she was surprised by the number of women currently incarcerated and those who are on parole.
“That’s such a large number of women that are in prison, like why is the number going up?” Barker said. “Why is the number rising? I think that’s something that stood out to me the most. And the fact that half the women in jail are mothers, that’s something else that’s super horrible.”