By Maria Rocha-Buschel
When Piper Kerman graduated from Smith College in the early ‘90s, she was looking for an adventure. But she didn’t expect that a little more than a decade later in 2004, she would be entering a federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut as a result of that adventure. This was the start of a year of hard time that would inspire her memoir, which in turn inspired the new hit show on Netflix, “Orange is the New Black.”
Kerman spoke about her experience at the East End Temple last Friday to a packed room after the synagogue’s weekly Shabbat services. The temple often invites speakers to come discuss secular issues and Rabbi David Adelson said that he was enthusiastic about having the author be a part of that event.
“It’s such a widely recognized show and she’s an expert in prison reform,” Adelson said. “I’m pleased with how many people came. So many people wanted to hear the true story and learn about real human rights issues. We have speakers come talk about issues that reflect Jewish values, human rights issues and justice. Judaism speaks to all issues of society and it’s about how we live our Jewish values.”
Kerman was indicted six years before she actually went to prison, for carrying a suitcase full of drug money from Chicago to Brussels. In her post-college adventures, she had become involved in a relationship with an older woman who also happened to be a drug dealer.
“I followed her around the globe,” Kerman said. “I was telling myself that being around those people was one thing but it came to the point where I crossed the line. I knew it wasn’t legal. It scared the pants off me and soon after that I left.”
The six-year delay for her imprisonment was due to the drug kingpin at the top of the operation being taken into custody not long after Kerman had signed a plea agreement, giving her a 15-month sentence or 13 months with time off for good behavior, which is the amount of time she ultimately ended up serving.
“We never knew how long it was going to take and during the first year I knew I was going to prison, I was just flat on my back, thinking: I’ve ruined my life, this was unethical and wrong, I threw my life away,” she said.
“After that I was thinking, my life might be over but I might as well get on with it. I just had to manage the looming idea of prison. And all of our lives contain that; sometimes you can predict what’s coming but sometimes not.”
Kerman is now an advocate for prison reform and addressed a number of the problems with the prison system that she encountered during her time behind bars. Much of her coping and means of survival came down to luck and circumstance, she noted.
“Not all Americans are policed in the same way,” she said. “Practices like stop-and-frisk send people into the system, often unnecessarily and Americans are prosecuted in different ways. My story is a great example of that. There’s no question that the staff in the prison treated me differently because of the color of my skin.”
She also noticed that a number of the women that she was in prison with had a lot more time than she did and she questioned whether the crimes they committed were really that much worse than hers. She found that wasn’t the case.
“It has to do with socioeconomic status and race,” she said. “Most of the women I was in prison with were too poor to afford an attorney. I was lucky enough that I was able to afford an attorney but 80 percent of the people in prisons are too poor to afford a lawyer.”
Her fiancé (now husband) Larry Smith, was able to visit her every weekend and she said that his visits helped keep her going.
“Larry really stuck by me,” she said. “Knowing that someone else sticks by you is really powerful.”
Having a positive mental state helped her through the experience and she added that connections with people on the outside can have a huge impact on motivating women to finish their sentences and get released.
“Relationships in prison are important but relationships on the outside are also important,” she said. “They remind you that you’re going home. Having someone who cares enough is a powerful reminder that you will one day return to the outside world.”
The facility where Kerman spent most of her sentence is being converted into a men’s facility. Currently, that Danbury facility is the only prison that holds women in the federal system in the northeast from Maine to Pennsylvania and after the conversion, those prisoners will be sent to a new facility in Alabama. Because so many women in the prison system are mothers, Kerman noted, this could have a detrimental effect on the relationships those prisoners have.
“It’s very cruel and capricious,” she said. “It has a negative impact on public safety and will sever powerful incentives to motivate them to come home. To have Mom dispatched to Alabama is like sending her to Mars.”
Many of the women in prison with Kerman, many of whom were mothers, were incarcerated for crimes similar to hers: non-violent drug offenses. She said that her experience was different from the popular images of prisons as places of relentless violence because most of the people locked up were non-violent offenders who had long sentences because they had poor legal representation.
“Women’s prisons are much less likely to be violent and these women are emblematic of the people that we’ve been putting in jail,” she said, adding that there has been incredible growth in the prison population since the 1980s. According data from to the U.S. Department of Justice, there are currently 2.3 million people in jails in the United States, compared to under 500,000 in 1980.
One of the things that interests Kerman the most in terms of prison reform is sending fewer people there in the first place. She noted that there should be decriminalization for things like drug possession and shorter sentences for other offenses because longer sentences can ultimately be counterproductive, since it can be difficult to adjust back to life outside.
“In my mind, the war on drugs is a complete failure,” she said. “It’s cheaper and easier now to get access to certain drugs and (putting people in prison) hasn’t made a dent in that type of crime.”