On February 24th, Piper Kerman, author of the book Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, came to Northeastern University to give a presentation on her experience, her book, and its adaptation as a popular Netflix series. Kerman was incarcerated for 13 months on convictions of money laundering and drug trafficking after carrying drug money for her former girlfriend, 10 years before her indictment. While describing her experience in prison, Kerman provided her insight and critique of the US criminal justice system.
As Kerman pointed out, the US has the largest criminal justice system in the world, involving 2.3 million people. However, despite being home to only 5 percent of the world population, the US holds 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Additionally, there has been an 800 percent increase in the rate of women’s incarceration over the past 30 years that is inconsistent with the decrease in crime rates during this period.
Kerman discussed inequality, both racial and socioeconomic, as a major issue within our criminal justice system. It is often minorities who are incarcerated, and black Americans are four times more likely to get arrested for possession of marijuana than white Americans. In terms of economic inequality, 80 percent of defendants cannot afford a lawyer and must be appointed one by the state. Also, prison is expensive, as phone calls and trips for visitation cost money that many inmates and their families do not have. The tragedy, Kerman said, is that contact with the outside world is so important for inmates, yet the prison system works to sever these ties.
Furthermore, Kerman spoke out against the mistreatment of women in prison and the effect of the criminal justice system on families. Even if they are pregnant, women still must go to prison and in 30 states, there are laws allowing women to be shackled during labor. There is also rampant sexual abuse, as men occupy most of the powerful positions in prisons and are in a position to take advantage of the female inmates. Kerman went on to question the separation of women from their children. She does not believe it is worth it for women convicted of non-violent crimes to be separated from their children. Kerman believes this leads to a cycle of incarceration, where generations of women (and men) continue to commit crimes and face imprisonment due to the lack of parental guidance during their childhood.
Overall, Kerman made some excellent points that should make all of us question the current criminal justice system. The system seems to be punishing people instead of rehabilitating them and the treatment of prisoners seems to prevent people from becoming good citizens. Moreover, prison separates families and has negative effects on society as a whole. Two-thirds of women in prison are also mothers, leaving 1.3 million American children with a mother in prison, and 7 million with at least one parent in prison. For more information on prison reform, specifically for women, you can visit http://www.wpaonline.org/ or http://piperkerman.com/.
Political Science ’16