Writer looks at ineffective prison systems


During child labor, women prisoners are shackled to their beds in the majority of states, including New Jersey. This is an example of the federal justice system’s lack of empathy that Piper Kerman believes has counterproductive and harmful consequences.

Kerman authored The New York Times Best Seller, “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison,” which Netflix adapted into a critically acclaimed original series.

Valerie Anderson, executive director of the Associate Alumnae of Douglass College invited Kerman to speak yesterday in Trayes Hall on Douglass campus for the annual L’Hommedieu Lecture. Each year, the lecture series brings a distinguished individual to campus with the purpose of enriching the lives of women.

When Kerman graduated from Smith College in 1992, she had many opportunities but little direction. She involved herself in a relationship with a woman who worked with narcotics trafficking, and in time, Kerman’s partner convinced her to smuggle drug money from Chicago to Brussels.

Once she realized her partner did not value their relationship, Kerman broke ties with her and put the past behind. Yet five years later, federal agents knocked on the door of her new apartment in New York City to tell her that she had been indicted in federal court in Chicago and if she did not comply, they would take her into custody.

Scared, Kerman quickly pleaded guilty. Because of a strange legal delay, she waited six years until the government placed her in the Danbury Minimum Security Prison in Danbury, Conn. for 11 months and later the Municipal Correctional Center in Chicago for two months.

For Kerman, this experience was indelible, driving her to write the memoir. She aimed to give readers a more complete and complex picture of who is in prison in this country, what happens to them there and foremost, what put them there in the first place.

“My greatest hope was that people would be able to come away from the book and be able to imagine what it would be like for them if they were incarcerated or perhaps to stand in my shoes or stand in the shoes of one of the other women,” she said.

The title of her memoir is not just a tongue-in-cheek jab at the fashion joke — it refers to the 800 percent increase in the incarceration of women since the 1980s. Although men account for more than 90 percent of the prison population, men, by contrast, are being incarcerated at a 400 percent increase.

Kerman blames these increases on policies enforced by the war on drugs ongoing since the 1980s, and because of this, hundreds of thousands of people are being incarcerated that would not have been a generation ago.

Currently, two-thirds of the country’s 200,000 incarcerated women were charged with nonviolent crimes.

Kerman believes that unquestionably, systematic racism and classism affect a woman’s treatment in the criminal justice system. Abuse is another common theme — more than 80 percent of incarcerated women Kerman has met had experienced some sort of physical or sexual abuse.

Douglass College alumna Amy Rodriguez also attended the event, and said the oppressive environment of her hometown, Camden, N.J., led her to feeling hopeless and trapped. A former inmate, Rodriguez was about to graduate from Rutgers with honors because of support from the Mountainview Project.

The project provides mentoring programs and alternative opportunities for at-risk youth and inmates.

“It is only that I have access to these programs that I am standing here today,” she said. “Take with me the steps to make an education available and accessible to all formally incarcerated individuals with the desire and grit to do what me and many others have already done.”

Although Rodriguez found the motivation to rise above self-doubt, she is among a very select and lucky few. Kerman believes that inmates can have success stories like Rodriguez’s if prisons refocus their attention to preserving their inmate’s dignity.

“The other things that you master quickly ... [are] the rituals prisoners use to stay human in a situation and a setting that is designed to take away your humanity,” she said.

Creative expression also helps give prisoners their humanity, and Kerman said prisons are increasingly introducing female and male inmates to the art of crocheting.

“This sense that you have something to give, that you are productive, that you are creative, that you have something really positive to contribute — is something that prisoners struggle [with] and create themselves, because very rarely do correctional systems foster that kind of thing,” she said.

With empathy, Kerman said the 700,000 people that return home from jail every year will be able to mesh more easily back into the community.

“Those relationships with those women were the things that helped me confront my own responsibility, for my own sense of contribution to their negative situation and helped me take responsibility for my own actions,” she said.


By Alex Meier

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