Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Woman’s Prison spoke with audience members at the Ronald Tutor Campus Center Grand Ballroom Tuesday night about her experiences behind bars and the state of the modern corrections system.
Kerman’s book describes her time at Danbury Correctional Facility in Connecticut for felonies involving drug trafficking that she had committed about 10 years earlier. After college, Kerman followed an older woman through various areas around the world, including places such as Bali and Zurich. She was asked to carry drug money from Chicago to Brussels, which led to her imprisonment.
Her memoir was adapted into a Netflix original series created by Jenji Kohan that was recently renewed for a second season. For those reading the book, Kerman hopes the reader gets a true idea of incarceration.
“I hoped that the reader might come away with a different idea of who is in prison in this country, why they are there and what really happens to them behind the jail walls,” Kerman said.
She noted that over the past 40 years, there has been an 800 percent increase in women’s incarceration because the justice system in the United States is putting people in prison that would not have been put in prison in the past.
When she was incarcerated, prisoners were put to work in various areas of the prison, and Kerman was placed in electrical work as well as construction. Kerman also mentioned that working and doing things that allow women to express their creativity in prison help them get through their sentences.
“You want control over your body in a place that tries to take that control away,” Kerman said.
The author also talked about how race, class and gender play a role within the prison system.
“Prisons are designed to marginalize people,” Kerman said. “Many of the guards are males, and there can sometimes be problems between the correctional officers and the prisoners.”
Kerman said she hopes people will soon be able to view prisoners through more than just a negative light.
“My only hope is that everyone in the criminal justice system can be judged not only on their worst days, but also on their best days,” Kerman said.
Students in attendance considered Kerman’s discussion especially telling about today’s incarceration system.
“I think it was really eye-opening and pretty inspiring, and it made me want to get involved in something similar in the future,” said Aileen Li, a freshman majoring in neuroscience and psychology.
Mimi Gualtieri, a freshman majoring in writing for screen and television, said she was surprised about how nicely prisoners treated Kerman.
“I think she did a really good job of pointing out problems regarding the prison system, and had I been in her situation, I don’t think I would have expected people to be as nice as she described them to be,” she said.
Kerman mentioned how kind the prisoners were to her, especially on her first day, and the prisoners offered her toothpaste and other amenities, which she had not expected.
Ben Hannani, a freshman majoring in political science, said Kerman’s talk broke down some of his preconceived notions of the prison system.
“I was interested to learn about prison reform and the role of women in prison, and she brought to light things that I would have otherwise not have been interested in,” Hannani said. “I have a really violent and aggressive vision of prisons, and after hearing Piper speak today, I realized that not all prisons are like that.”