Piper Kerman talks about the reality of prison

By Christian Yapor

(Christina Yacono)
(Christina Yacono)

More than 650 students gathered in the Campus Center Auditorium last night for a seminar led by Piper Kerman, author of this year’s common read for the University of Massachusetts, “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Woman’s Prison.”

During her seminar, Kerman spoke about her memoir while touching on topics including her experiences in prison, statistics of incarcerated women and marginalization in the justice system due to race and class.

“I essentially decided that what I needed to do was invite the reader in, and to invite the reader to either stand in my shoes, or put themselves in the shoes of one of the other women depicted in the book,” she said.

In 2004, Kerman surrendered herself to the Federal Correctional Institute in Danbury, Connecticut, where she spent a 13-month sentence for the crime of money laundering and drug trafficking.

According to Kerman, the number of incarcerated women in the U.S. in the past 30 years has increased by 800 percent. A statistic she finds “staggering.”

“We have to recognize and acknowledge this problem in our justice system so that we can now start to fix it,” she added.

“I thought it was really shocking to hear that they ever made pregnant woman be chained to their beds,” added Elyssa Needle, a freshman theater major. “She’s very much involved in the criminal justice system even now, so it’s just really interesting to hear her talk.”

With an audience of mainly UMass students, most had positive things to say about the event.

“I thought it was good because it brought a lot of attention to something that’s not talked about a lot, but should be talked about more,” said Mike Amirault, a freshman computer science major. “(She) brought up a lot of statistics that are kind of shocking but you don’t hear a whole lot.”

Prisoners who are able to maintain frequent contact with their families and friends on the outside are much less likely to return to prison or jail, according to Kerman. She points this out to inspire compassion and sympathy toward the 700,000 people who are released from prison every year, and have to return back to their regular lives outside of prison.

Kerman touches on the topic of marginalization towards these prisoners as well. One statistic that she pointed out was that African Americans are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people.

“What you see and what you find in prison or jail are many people who have experienced marginalization long before they ever walked through the gates of prison or jail,” Kerman said.
“What I want for everyone who goes through the system is for them to be seen not only for their worst days, but also for their best days.”

Kerman also spoke about prison reform, which included common sense sentencing in court, public defense reform and keeping children out of the system.

“I think it’s super important to hear about prison reform, and to hear about the uglier side of prison,” said freshman Melissa Myers. “I feel like we definitely don’t see enough of that, and I think another part that we like to gloss over is the aspect of race and class, and it think it’s really important to focus on those kinds of things.”

Christian Yapor can be reached at [email protected].