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‘Orange is the New Black’s’ Piper Kerman talks women, prison

Author Piper Kerman, whose book ‘Orange is the New Black’ inspired the original Netflix series of the same name, spoke to OSU students in a lecture sponsored by OUAB.  Credit: Shelby Lum / Photo editor

Author Piper Kerman, whose book ‘Orange is the New Black’ inspired the original Netflix series of the same name, spoke to OSU students Jan. 13 at the Ohio Union.
Credit: Shelby Lum / Photo editor

Stores are bringing in racks of swimsuits amidst snowfall. Magazines prep for big spring issues, flashing headlines of what styles are “in,” which colors are “out.” Amidst all that, writer Piper Kerman spoke to Ohio State students Tuesday to say orange really is the new black for women.

Kerman said the number of women in prison has grown 800 percent in the last three decades.

“The person wearing an orange jumpsuit is now more likely to be a woman,” Kerman said.

Kerman is the author of memoir “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison,” which was adapted into the popular Netflix original series called “Orange is the New Black.”

As a young woman, Kerman was involved with a “sophisticated, older woman,” who, she said was part of a drug ring. Kerman once transported a large sum of money internationally for the ring.

After the trip she ended the relationship and went on to live her life.

“I put that experience in the lockbox way back in the drawer,” Kerman said. “But consequences of our actions always come back to us at some point …  In my case it was in the form of two federal agents.”

Almost a decade after committing the crime, Kerman entered a Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Conn.

Once released after serving 13 months, Kerman reflected on her experience. She noticed how race and class, motherhood and family, gender and power and friendship and empathy impacted inmates’ lives.

It was “an involuntary community but a community nonetheless,” she said.

She wanted to share the stories of the women inside in order for people to think more about the prison system, what it’s like and who is in it. Kerman is now calling for reform to keep non-violent criminals out of prison. She suggested increasing education, reducing drug sentencing, interventions that don’t make prison the first step and handling mental illness and substance abuse in the public health system.

Kerman said she was lucky to have strong connections to the outside world while in prison. She had a stable family and job waiting for her. Most women, she said, are not that lucky.

“Empathy is absolutely essential to bringing people home from prison,” she said.

Kerman’s memoir and the Netflix adaption allowed those stories and issues to the forefront of some peoples minds, including Sarah Makepeace, a first-year in speech and hearing science.

“I hardcore watched the show in 24 hours,” said Makepeace. “Listening to her really opened my eyes to prison reform which I’d never cared about before but it’s so important.”

The show made an impression on Dave Howcroft, a graduate student in linguistics,

“I found the show powerful in that it addresses social issues and tells stories that don’t get enough media representation,” Howcroft said.

Kerman closed her talk with advice on our treatment of other people.

“Everyone who goes through the system should not just be judged on their worst day, but also on their best.”

One comment

  1. A few years back I got arrested by Columbus police while in town to celebrate my student athlete’s career achievement. Well I sat in jail for two days (all the charges were dropped). While being arrested the police kept being fascinated with my Buckeye child and kept apologizing all night for having to arrest me (child was in Dispatch that week I think). I remember saying to my cell mates “You will NEVER see this face again!!! I’m going back to my middle class lifestyle in my home state. I don’ know how you ladies keep coming back to this h@ hole!!!!” The food was horrible, guards angry. I felt like an animal with drug heads. The judge said in court “Is her buckeye star here because this tells me she will make all her court dates?” The police were sooooo nice to me! Oh one more thing it was sad listening to women on the phone begging for bail money from people/family they tapped dry while money was the least of my problems. My buckeye was ready to transfer whatever it took to get me out (coach was sooooo supportive as well)!

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