'Orange Is the New Black' author points out problems with prisons

Thursday, April 17, 2014 | 10:54 p.m. CDT; updated 11:54 p.m. CDT, Thursday, April 17, 2014

COLUMBIA — Americans make up 5 percent of the world's population, but the country's prisoners make up a quarter of the world's imprisoned population, said Piper Kerman, author of the memoir "Orange Is the New Black."

"This is a really central question for us as a society: how to not have the largest prison population in the world," she said.

Her memoir is based on the 13 months she spent in prison between 2004 and 2005 at the Danbury Federal Correctional Institution. Jenji Kohan, a television creator, writer and producer, later adapted the book into a Netflix series with the same name.

On Thursday night, Kerman addressed a crowd that filled MU's Jesse Auditorium. She advocated common-sense sentencing, reduced dependence on incarceration for public safety, and handling mental health and substance abuse problems within the public health system, rather than the prison system.

Kerman told the story of how after college she found herself in "a great deal of trouble." She ended up carrying drug money for a dealer, with whom she was also romantically involved.

"The day came when she (the dealer) said, 'I need you to do something,'" Kerman said. "I had crossed this bright line."

After breaking off the relationship, Kerman said her life followed a "predictable" path. She got a job. She got a boyfriend.

But Kerman's life took an unpredictable turn when, years later, two federal agents knocked on her door. She pleaded guilty to money laundering and was sentenced to 15 months in minimum-security prison. 

Kerman's time in prison was different from what she expected it to be, but it could still be harsh and scary.

A prisoner's lifelines to the outside world are essential, she said. The ones who maintain their ties to the outside are much less likely to return to prison, she said, but the prison system functions to sever these very lifelines.

When Kerman asked her fellow inmates how much time they were serving, she learned that others had much longer sentences, and for crimes that weren't much worse than the one she had committed.

She concluded race and class must be the difference. 

The ultimate goal of prison is punishment through marginalization, Kerman said. But many who enter prisons experienced marginalization — through mental illness or poverty — well before they were ever incarcerated.

These individuals are pushed even further toward the edge of society by a felony conviction, she said, and "the harder we push them, the harder it is for them to come back in."

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