Orange Is the New Black author Piper Kerman talks prison reform
Since getting out of prison in 2005, Piper Kerman has been pounding the pulpit for criminal-justice reform. Her prison memoir, Orange Is the New Black , attracted the attention of producer Jenji Kohan, who adapted it into a critically acclaimed Netflix series. Kerman has used the success of the show and her book as a chance to speak with audiences about her experiences and the atrocity of mass incarceration. In advance of her presentation at the Lone Tree Arts Center on May 22, Westword spoke with Kerman about her book, the show and the prison system.
Credit: Sam Zalutsky, Spiegel and Grau Piper Kerman, author of , will speak at the Lone Tree Arts Center on Thursday, May 22.
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Westword: Talk about what you're doing in Colorado.
Piper Kerman: I'll be visiting Colorado and the Lone Tree Arts Center, which is exciting. I always try to talk about my own work, the experience behind the book, why I thought it was important to write the book and a bit about the process of adapting the book into the series. I think that people are interested in this story because it has relevance to so many other Americans' stories, because of the size and the scope of our prison system and our criminal justice system. On some level, the narrative is a way into something that we grapple with as a country.
Talk about your own prison experience and how it relates to the broader criminal justice system.
We have the biggest prison population in the world. We have the biggest prison population in human history, here in the United States. In a relatively short time, in one generation, we have invested so deeply in incarceration. Our prison population has grown from 500,000 in 1980 to 2.4 million today. It's been massive growth. The fastest-growing segment of our criminal justice system and that prison population has been women. Female incarceration has risen by 800 percentin this country.
What we started doing is putting people in prison who we never would have put in prison before -- folks like low-level, non-violent offenders, especially for drug offenses. That's really reflected in my own story. I am a low-level, non-violent drug offender. Many of the women that I was doing time with fit that bill as well. I believe that we've reached a point in this country where most people are questioning whether we have made the best choices. Our crime rates are exceptionally low. They are very low, and they keep going down, and they have been low for a long time. The continuing rise in incarceration does not really correlate with crime.
Talk about the experience with the adaptation -- how that's impacted you and how you have used it as a site for advocacy.
The book came out in 2010. I had never written anything for publication before. I was grateful to find readers. I did find this one remarkable reader in Jenji Kohan. She is the woman who created the TV show Weeds. She said, "I'd really like to make this my next project." That was startling, but exciting. Lo and behold, the stars lined up and the project moved forward. It's really fascinating to watch the adaptation process. The show is an adaptation; it's not a biography. Right from the very first episode, there are dramatic departures from the true story I told in the book. I think that's absolutely fine. I think that's great. I think that's what makes it a successful adaptation, rather than a tasteful biopic approach that would not work. They've done a brilliant job. Season 2 is pretty amazing, and I think the viewers are really going to enjoy it.
Some people think there are so many issues that concern people. Making sure reforming criminal justice is a priority is sometimes challenging with folks whose lives have not been touched directly, who have not been incarcerated themselves, who have not had a loved one go through the system. The truth is, it affects millions and millions of Americans' lives and most particularly Americans who are poor and are from the most vulnerable communities. It is not a fringe issue.
It counts for an enormous amount of public spending. It affects many people's lives. Having something in place in pop culture that really focuses on those questions in a way that is engaging and tells really fascinating stories is important to remind folks that this is a central issue for us as a culture and as a community.
Talk about your experience since the book came out. What has been your own personal journey, and where has that gone?
I'm so lucky. I was released from prison in 2005, and unlike most of the 700,000 people who are coming home from jail every year, I was coming home to a safe and stable place to live, first and foremost, but also, when I was coming home, I had a job that I started a week after, and that is just so important, I can't over state it. I've always worked in communications, and after I went through that process of reentry, I fairly quickly shifted my work into public interest communications. So I had the opportunity, long before the book came out and the show came out, to work with nonprofits and with advocates on a host of issues.
Obviously, criminal justice reform is closest to my heart. I do anything that I can do personally to help try to elevate those issues and help people who work on the ground in the states where most of the good reform is frankly happening. It is a really great opportunity, from my point of view.
Read on to find out Piper Kerman's thoughts on Colorado prison issues.