The right way to reform American prisons is to prevent people from going to jail in the first place, according to Piper Kerman, author of the book “Orange is the New Black,” which inspired the hit Netflix series.
Kerman, who spent 13 months in a women’s prison six years after being involved in drug trafficking, spoke before nearly 200 students in the crowded Davenport common room on Monday. Drawing from her own experience of indictment, conviction and incarceration, Kerman evaluated the state of the U.S. justice system and explained her advocacy for prison reform.
Kerman said her story presents “an inroad into a carceral world … a voyage through the criminal justice system.”
After graduating from Smith College, Kerman became involved with drug trafficking for a short period of time. But in 1998, she was indicted for crimes she had committed six years earlier, and she served just over a year in Danbury Women’s Prison in Connecticut starting in 2004. With support from friends and family, she wrote “Orange is the New Black” soon after her release.
Kerman said her motivation for writing a book was to educate people who would not usually consider the prison situation in the U.S. Kerman said personal stories provide a powerful way to convey information on serious issues, as people invest themselves more based on gut than on statistics.
The most important step for prison reform is to “stop the flow of humanity” by reducing the number of people going to prison, she said. Since 80 percent of prison inmates have experienced violence or trauma before going to prison, Kerman said prison reform should first focus on mitigation methods to prevent crimes from occurring.
Though U.S. crime rates are low compared to those of some countries, American incarceration rates are exploding and recently reached 2.3 million, she said. Public opinion is against exploring options other than prison for criminals, Kerman said. She added that providing criminals with good lawyers who can advocate for more lenient sentencing is “a tough sell:” people are often reluctant to endorse the rights of felons and many remain steadfast in their views that criminals should be punished severely.
The justice system is also quick to dole out unreasonably steep punishments, Kerman said, adding that 10 ounces of cocaine could earn a person 10 years in prison.
Kerman said two-thirds of U.S. prisoners commit another offence after being released, which she believes exposes fundamental flaws in the prison system. Many prisoners face severe obstacles upon returning to society, ranging from mental illness to substance abuse to the struggle to find employment.
Students interviewed said Kerman presented eye-opening and articulate insight on a pertinent issue.
Julian Hornik ’17 said Kerman represents a “new face for prison reform.”
Though the notion of a blonde, middle-class woman going to prison may seem unexpected, many people are paying attention to Kerman’s story and prison reform ideas as a result, Chelsea Watson ’17 said.
Holly Reppon-Butler, a Davenport College graduate affiliate, said she agreed with Kerman that it is important for the justice system to distinguish between “people who are dangerous and people who just need help” when sentencing them.
Though prison is a necessary deterrent, it should not be a default solution for all crime, Hornik said.
The second season of “Orange is the New Black” will air on Netflix in 2014.