"Orange is the New Black" Author Calls for Prison Reforms
COLUMBIA - More than a thousand people packed into Jesse Auditorium Thursday night to hear Piper Kerman share her story of the 15-months she spent behind bars. The author of "Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison" explored issues of race and power and told of her transformation from inmate to advocate.
Netflix used Kerman's memoir as the inspiration behind its hit original series "Orange is the New Black," created by Jenji Kohan. When Kerman asked how many people had seen the show, it was difficult to find an unraised hand in the auditorium. The show, which begins its second season in early June, follows character Piper Chapman through her adjustment into a women's correctional facility and illustrates many of the issues surrounding corrections. Piper Chapman's character embodies many of the real experiences Kerman faced.
In 2004, authorities booked Kerman into Danbury Correctional Institution in Connecticut. She had turned herself in six years prior after being indicted for money laundering and drug trafficking. She pleaded guilty to the charges and admitted to carrying drug money from Chicago to Brussels in 1998.
"I think that the truth is the show grapples with very difficult issues and one of the ways that we are able approach difficult issues is using humor," Kerman said. "I think the most difficult issues require humor because people can't really grapple with them otherwise."
Kerman said the show reaches a new audience - an audience who, like her young self, have little to no experience with the criminal justice system. She explained her story, as told through both her book and the Netflix show, as a "fish out of water" approach to tackling the complicated issues like mental health, sexual abuse and recidivism rates in American prisons. She said she hopes conversations sparked from both her book and the show change how stories surrounding incarceration and the criminal justice system are received and understood by the public.
Kerman said the number of women in the prison system has increased 800 percent since the 1980s, many of which are serving time for non-violent offenses. Kerman asked the audience to remember a majority of these women not simply inmates, but also mothers.
"My fundamental hope always is that people simply think about the 2.4 million people who are in prisons and jails in this country as people and not as criminals, convicted felons like all of those harsh words that we do use but also remember that they are people, " she said.
Kerman encouraged the audience to get involved in reform however they can. She suggested donating books or supporting smarter sentencing legislation. She also encouraged the audience to think about which institutions we are investing time and resources in. As an example, she shared a startling statistic showing the $3 million discrepancy between California's prison budget and education budgets.
Kerman said much of the show is directly pulled from her memoir, however, she said a lot of the content is blended with fictional elements. Kerman called Kohan's interpretation of her experience in prison as "smart and provocative."
"It's asking people to take a fresh look at who is in prisons and why are they there and what happens to them there," Kerman said. "Different people have different ways of approaching these questions but the truth is the criminal justice system is huge and there's a lot of room for improvement. Different people care about different things but there's room for everyone to participate in change."
The University of Missouri Department of Student Activities hosted the event. Cale Sears serves on the committee and said Kerman's presentation was one of the best lectures the group has brought to campus.
"One of the best because she brought it full circle," Sears said. "She talked about facts, statistics and ways to get involved and help out."