As a young woman, Piper Kerman, author of the 2010 memoir “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison,” made a mistake that led her deep into the labyrinth of the criminal justice system.
On Saturday, Kerman will appear at the Maze of Injustice: Incarceration in Small and Rural America hosted by the Vera Institute of Justice event at Cherry Crest Adventure Farm, where she’ll be joined by other speakers, along with formerly incarcerated artist Jesse Krimes and his massive interactive art installation that features a corn maze. The maze is an apt metaphor for the prison system — and it’s one that Kerman uses in her memoir, too.
“It is really one of the most accurate and powerful metaphors you can think of for what we have,” Kerman said during a phone interview. “It’s a punitive and complex system and not a system really designed to rehabilitate people. I think everybody needs to ask: What we expect out of the justice system. Do we truly want people to be better or do we just want them to be punished?”
In her early 20s, Kerman became involved with a ring of “impossibly cool” drug smugglers, and with them, traveled the world, partied in Bali, strode the streets of Paris and generally lived the high life. All she had to do was carry an occasional bag of money in and out of airports, which, to her, hardly seemed like a crime at all. Later, when her lover and partner in crime, Nora, asked her to carry actual drugs, Kerman agreed. Luckily for Kerman, the drugs never arrived and she escaped the situation.
Realizing how closely she’d come to losing her sense of self, she left the underworld behind and moved to San Francisco to pursue a career with a television production company.
A decade later, Kerman was arrested. She was named in a conspiracy charge — two years shy of the statute of limitations. By then, she’d had a steady job and a serious boyfriend and rarely thought about her wild post-college days. Now, the bright, blonde Smith College graduate faced 15 months in a federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut.
In Danbury, Kerman quickly realized the harsh realities of the prison system. Stripped of basic comforts, cut off from the outside world and forced to live in close confines with people she’d likely never encounter in her normal circles, Kerman discovered a surprising sisterhood. She also learned about the horrors of the criminal justice system, such as the sometimes absurdly unfair sentences and the disproportionate number of non-white, non-violent offenders inside the system. And she reflected on her crimes.
“Lack of empathy lies at the heart of every crime — certainly my own — yet empathy is the key to bringing a former prisoner back into the fold of society,” writes Kerman in her memoir.
Women in prison
Kerman survived her sentence. And emerged with material to pen the critically acclaimed book “Orange is the New Black,” which was developed into the hit Netflix series of the same name, and a new sense of purpose. She has since dedicated herself to using her voice to bring some empathy to the justice system, working with the Women’s Prison Organization and teaching writing in women’s and men’s prisons. Kerman notes that women represent the highest-rising population in the prison system.
“The conservative estimate for the increase in women’s incarceration (since 1980) is 650% and some people estimate it much higher,” says Kerman. “But we know for a fact that women have long been the fastest growing part of the prison and jail population. It’s not a change that has happened because there’s this unbelievable female crime wave that’s been taking place; rather, it’s because we’ve started using the criminal justice system as a response to things like addiction and mental illness. A majority of women and girls who end up in the system are there for two reasons: substance use and addiction and things related to mental illness, and obviously those things often overlap.”
In a particularly frustrating scene from Kerman’s memoir, she and a group of inmates attend a series of reentry classes on housing and employment where nearly no relevant information is provided. And, Kerman notes, 700,000 people are released from prison each year and two-thirds of them will return to the system. She acknowledges that most of them won’t have the same privileges she enjoys as a college educated white woman.
“Again, this brings us back to this inescapable maze metaphor,” says Kerman. “The system is really not set up for people to succeed. That’s just not the way that it works.”
One way to escape is through education. During her time in prison, Kerman read. A lot. She received books from friends and family members. She also wrote lots of letters. One pen pal was named Joe Loya — a former prisoner who wrote a memoir called “The Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell: Confessions of a Bank Robber.” Loya; Kerman’s husband, the writer Larry Smith; and others encouraged Kerman to write her own memoir.
Kerman has spent the last four-and-a-half years in Ohio, where she taught writing in the state prisons there. She’s now living in Berkeley, California, and working on a book detailing her experiences teaching in the prison system. The experience will make up the material for her next, as-yet-untitled book, due to be published by Random House, most likely in 2021.
“I was really grateful that the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction allowed me to come teach,” says Kerman. “My students were writing stories from their own lives. Their stories were fascinating and their stories are important. We hope to publish the best of their work. I’ve had a lot of students who have come home now. They come home to different types of situations, but many of my students have really thrived once they’ve returned home. I have a few students that are such good writers that I’m like, ‘I don’t think I can teach you much, but I can certainly provide you with a place to come and be a part of a writing community.’ I want folks that are affected by the system to have ownership of their own story and tell the story the way they see it. I think that helps us understand the world better.”