My interest in criminal justice policies has taken me to a few talks on the subject over the years. I’ve listened to people tell their stories of life behind bars and how those years have inspired them to seek change. All of these lectures have been informative and fascinating.
Last Tuesday, however, was the first time I’ve seen hordes of people wait hours outside an auditorium for the chance to hear an advocate for criminal justice reform speak. In fact, it was probably the only educational talk I have seen that filled a large auditorium so quickly and with such an enthusiastic crowd. But such is the power of Piper Kerman, the writer of the memoir that inspired the hit TV show “Orange is the New Black.”
Kerman is a vocal prison reform activist who uses her experience behind bars, through the TV show and her memoir that depict it, to shine a light on the fundamental flaws of our nation’s criminal justice system. She’s also undoubtedly a celebrity; the show (loosely) based on Kerman’s life experience is a massive hit, and she has 112,000 followers on Twitter. It’s hard for me to reconcile these two identities, especially given that Kerman was not the typical U.S. prisoner, and her experience as a prisoner doesn’t reflect the pain and suffering felt by many of those incarcerated.
Mass incarceration, after all, is a problem that disproportionately affects communities of color and poor communities. Kerman, on the other hand, is white, wealthy and college-educated. People like Kerman (and me) are less likely to end up in jail or prison because our privilege makes us unlikely to be caught committing a crime and, if we are caught, less likely to be punished for it.
When rich white people commit crimes, it’s often viewed as a foolish mistake or some kind of fluke. The same cannot be said for people of other backgrounds. And, if the wealthy do end up being charged, they can afford effective representation. Kerman’s sentence was short because she could afford an attorney who could fight to get her the minimum sentence. Few people who end up in prison are that lucky, and her view of the prison system is undeniably a privileged one.
But the story of a white woman from a good family who ends up in prison is a story that people will listen to. In her interview with The Michigan Daily, Kerman acknowledged that the reason people are interested in her story is because it’s a “fish-out-of-water story.” Everybody knows that people like Kerman don’t go to jail. So, when they do, we’re interested. Her whiteness and wealth may make her ill-suited to be the face for prison reform, but these are the reasons that people are listening in the first place.
Kerman is well aware of her privilege, and uses it as a tool. She says she wrote “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison” so that somebody who usually wouldn’t pick up a book about prison would be curious and find themselves empathizing with prisoners and caring about criminal justice reform. It did just that.
The popularity of “Orange is the New Black,” the book and show, brought complex, sympathetic prisoners of different races and backgrounds into the hearts of millions of Americans. The show is groundbreaking because it portrays prisoners as humans who made mistakes, not evil, dangerous people. The show continues to reveal the depth of humanity that these prisoners are capable of, and Kerman continues to advocate for prison justice reform. And people will keep watching and listening.
Even if it’s hard to stomach that a wealthy, white woman is probably the most famous prison reform advocate in the United States, it’s hard to deny that her activism has helped prison reform make huge strides. Kerman’s somewhat conflicting roles of celebrity and activist have helped the issue reach new ears. Her show is part of the reason that the topic is widely understood as a pressing national issue.
So maybe it’s best not to look a gift horse in the mouth.
As someone who cares a lot about changing the criminal justice system, I will continue to be grateful for the work that Kerman does. But perhaps it’s time to bring additional voices to the forefront.
Kerman does her part by highlighting the stories of other former prisoners who are more representative of our nation’s prison population. Now it’s our turn to make sure the conversation doesn’t end here.
Listen to the voices of other people who have experienced the criminal justice system, not just because their stories are interesting, but also because they are important. Listen to a TEDxUofM Talk by Mary Heinen and support the Prison Arts Coalition, the project she co-founded that supports and provides resources for those creating art in and around the prison system. Be a part of the Prison Creative Arts Project, a similar program that is housed in the University’s Residential College. Do your own research to find out how you can best help prisoners or reform prisons.
Don’t be content to take “Orange is the New Black” at face value: The plotlines on the show may be fictional, but the pain felt by the characters as a result of their incarceration is far from make-believe.
Mary Kate Winn is a Public Policy junior and an assistant editorial page editor.