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Piper Kerman, the creator of "Orange is the New Black," sits down with The Lantern. Credit: Mitch Hooper | Engagement Editor

Columbus resident Piper Kerman talks prison inequalities ahead of Ohio State engagement

“Orange Is the New Black” is back.

Piper Kerman, author of “Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, is bringing her story to Ohio State on Wednesday as she speaks about the inequality in the American prison system.

The event, hosted by OSU’s Center for Ethics and Human Values, will take place in Mershon Auditorium at 4 p.m. Kerman also spoke at OSU in 2014 for an OUAB event.

Kerman was indicted in 1998 on charges of drug trafficking and money laundering, crimes she had committed in the early 1990s. In 2004, she served her 15-month sentence.

“I was much more fortunate than a lot of the people who go through the criminal justice system like the women I was incarcerated with,” Kerman said. “A huge number of women were serving much longer sentences for very similar offenses.”

Kerman explained the impact background, race and socioeconomic status plays on someone’s experience with America’s criminal justice system.

“The data shows us very clearly that race and socioeconomic status make a huge difference in what kind of outcome someone will get in the criminal justice system,” Kerman said. “Unfortunately, this means that two Americans cannot count on being treated the same way in the criminal justice system — which is our expectation under law.”

Kerman published a memoir of her experience in 2010. The Netflix adaptation debuted in 2013 and garnered worldwide attention. The show has continued for four seasons and has already been renewed for a fifth, sixth and seventh.

“The result of the show has been phenomenal,” Kerman said. “From the very first season, there have been huge departures from the true story that’s told in the book, but what’s important to me is that the themes of the book are about race and class and gender and power and friendship and empathy. All of those themes are there in the show and that’s what is really important.”

Currently, Kerman lives in Columbus and teaches nonfiction writing to male inmates at the Marion Correctional Institution. She also serves on the board of the Women’s Prison Association and frequently speaks to students, advocacy and reform groups and formerly and currently incarcerated people.

“What I really hope is that we stop putting people in prison and jail whose fundamental issues are grounded in substance abuse and addiction or mental health challenges,” Kerman said. “If they don’t need to be there for public safety reasons then they shouldn’t be there at all. That would really start to reduce our prison populations. Our prisons and jails have really become dumping grounds for mentally-ill people.”

Despite making up about 5 percent of the world’s population, America has about 22 percent of the world’s prison population. Kerman said the disproportionate number can be attributed, in part, to the lack of dealing with the root cause of most people’s transgressions, which is typically mental health issues or addiction and substance abuse problems.

“Prisons and jails need to be able to provide mental health care, but the idea that we have lodged mental health care for poor people in the criminal justice system is an incredibly poor choice,” she said. “That really belongs in the community and in the public health system. That would be an extremely important starting point.”
Tickets for Kerman’s event are currently available for free at cehv.osu.edu.

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