Orange is the New Black came to life last night as Piper Kerman joined students and faculty in Kresge Auditorium for the first Ubben Lecture of the semester. Kerman got personal quickly, discussing not only her journey through the prison system, but also the specific ethical dilemmas she encountered and witnessed throughout her sentence. Kerman served thirteen months in prison (from 2004-2005) for money laundering- a crime that she committed once in 1993 while romantically involved with a woman who dealt narcotics internationally. Shortly after carrying drug money across international borders, Kerman realized she had crossed a line and ended the relationship. She returned to the states, got a stable job, and dissociated herself from the life she had been living with her former partner. Five years later, she was indicted and sentenced to fifteen months in federal prison at Danbury Correctional Facility. The title of her memoir is not only catchy but also meaningful. Orange is the New Black is a reference to fashion trends, but the underlining message is true and sincere. Her title highlights the fact that women make up the largest rising prison population. In the past 30 years, the number of women in prison has increased by 800%.
As she shared her experience, it became clear that prison for Kerman was not only a time of intimidation and fear, but also a time of genuine friendship and comfort. She mentioned that she strives to stay in touch with many friends that she met at Danbury today. Although Kerman admitted that, if she could, she would go back in time and change her decision to commit the crime, her experiences in prison inspired her to share her story and illuminate the complicated issues that engulf our legal system today. The power struggle between male guards and female prisoners, the unsanitary living conditions, and the lack of medical attention and care, among other things, leave many prisoners abused, mentally unstable, and terribly sick. Kerman explained that a majority of women in the prison system today have been placed there for minor crimes like drug possession and petty theft. To make matters worse, many of these women go to prison leaving children behind who are incredibly impacted by the absence of a mother-figure in their lives.
By sending people to prison for small, non-violent crimes, is the legal system succeeding in protecting our society and making it a safer place to live? Or, is this process hurting society by separating families and in turn increasing the incarceration rate of those children with parents placed in prison?
Kerman also discussed the important topic of race and criminal justice, and how certain segments of the population, notably African American males, are so disproportionately targeted and represented in the American prison system. She explained how the criminal “justice” system has been used as a tool to control certain communities.
She ended her lecture by emphasizing the importance of bringing about more inclusive and less-marginalizing communities. Doing so would likely reduce the number of people sent to prison, and hopefully would make re-entering into society after prison easier. The answer is not to create more prisons and incarcerate more people. This harms society much more than it helps.
Bringing about change is not easy. Both Kerman’s memoir and Jenji Kohan’s Netflix series provoke audiences to think critically about what is actually happening behind bars. How has your perception of the legal system changed? How can we work to better this broken system?