Piper Kerman wrote the acclaimed memoir, Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison. Her altogether hilarious and desperately sad account of the women she met while behind bars was eventually made into the wildly popular Netflix series starring Taylor Schilling.
Piper is in Sydney for the All About Women festival being held at the Opera House.
People make mistakes
Although the Orange is the New Black TV show occasionally strays from the truth of Piper’s book, it accurately depicts Piper Kerman’s fall from grace as a young and successful American woman, who was sentenced to a year at the Danbury Federal Correctional Institution for carrying drug money overseas. It was a mistake she made while testing boundaries in her youth that finally caught up with her—a crime she committed ten years before she was arrested.
“When you venture very, very far out of your comfort zone and get too far away from the person you understand yourself to be, that’s when you can sometimes find yourself in a great deal of trouble. We all find the consequences of our actions, both for better or for worse. We don’t all commit crimes obviously, but we all do things that we wish we could take back. Obviously in my case, the consequences involved prison,” Piper told the ABC’s 7.30 program.
Piper’s family and friends had no idea about her brief and foolish involvement with an international drug ring and they were shocked to see her incarcerated. Piper was even more shocked, realising her blonde hair and blue eyes suddenly made her the minority in a prison full of women from a range of minority groups.
Although Piper learnt important lessons about race, gender, and class in prison, which have obviously resonated with fans of Orange is the New Black, Piper told the ABC that society takes the wrong approach to locking people up and that many people don’t learn anything useful from being imprisoned.
“[Prisons] are unquestionably a form of retribution for harm caused, so you can absolutely check that box. What most prisons and jails do not do is rehabilitate or restore people so that they will come back to the community ready to do things differently. I think that really is one of the tragic misconceptions: that somehow the punishment of prison is the thing that is going to help someone do better.”
Women serve a ‘second sentence’
Piper also believes that women are punished beyond the sentence handed down to them. Because of overcrowding in prisons, women are often unable to be accommodated in prisons located close to their homes and are placed in interstate facilities. She told the New York Times:
“What was universally important to all of us were our lifelines to the outside world — our spouses and partners, our friends and family, and for many women, their children.”
Piper says women already have to survive prison with limited visits from family and being so far away is a devastating blow for women and their children, who still need and care for their mothers.
“A mother’s incarceration has a devastating effect on her family, and experts say that maintaining contact with a parent in prison is critical to a child’s well-being. One in 28 children has a parent in prison today, and Danbury houses the mothers of at least 700 children,” she said.
Piper’s experiences in prison had a profound affect on her, but she says that this is because of the injustice she witnessed, rather than any intentional rehabilitation provided in the prison setting.
Alternatives to prison
Piper now serves on the board of the Womens’ Prison Association, which has worked to launch JusticeHome in New York City. It’s a new program seeking to keep women from being moved so far away from their families, and allows some women who plead guilty to remain at home with their children.
The women involved in the program are required to report to court regularly and are visited several times a week by case managers to supervise behaviour and provide guidance about jobs, education, and parenting.
To those who argue that programs like JusticeHome are a waste of public money, Piper points out that JusticeHome is paid for by the city and costs about $15,000 per woman, which is far less than it would cost to imprison any person for a year.
“Harshly punitive drug laws and diminishing community mental health resources have landed many women in prison who simply do not belong there, often for shockingly long sentences. What is priceless about JusticeHome, however, is that it is working not only to rehabilitate women but to keep families together — which we know is an effective way to reduce crime and to stop a cycle that can condemn entire families to the penal system,” she said.