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Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison -- a Powerful Memoir by Piper Kerman

Piper Kerman's memoir reveals how prison changed her life, and why warehousing people who commit crimes is such a waste of human potential.

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It was very interesting. I'm a white woman. I've never lived in a community where white people were the minority. I didn't find it to be difficult for me. I obviously have never been in a men's unit, although I lived in a shared unit … I understand that there are stronger race-based organizing principles and gang factors that go on mainly in men's prisons but that just wasn't that much of a factor.

That doesn't mean that race and privilege don't completely play out just as they do in the courtroom once you're in the correctional system. They do. Job assignments, favoritism from staff in one direction in the other.

LS: Were you surprised or unnerved at the currency of white skin and blond hair with prison staff in general?

PK: Yeah, sure. It was completely weird.

LS: It seems like they didn't let you forget it, and it cut both ways: in your favor (whether you wanted that or not) and sometimes against you.

PK: Absolutely. It's just a really stark way of experiencing and understanding racial privilege, in a way that is not so stark and vivid in the outside world.

LS: Are you familiar with Michelle Alexander's new book, The New Jim Crow? It deals primarily with African American men, but it makes clear that the prison crisis in the U.S. has basically created a new racial caste system.

PK: I think that those numbers also apply to black women when you look at who is most likely to be incarcerated. I think those numbers are very stark and you would have to be very intellectually dishonest to suggest that that doesn't demonstrate and betray racism in the system from front to back. You can't really look at the numbers for, let's say black men, and come up with a defensible rationale for those numbers.

The prison system is not a solution for the problems of poverty that we can afford, obviously, on an economic level right now -- state governments especially are in crisis; look at what's happening in California. But we also can't afford it on a moral level or a social level. It creates, absolutely, a community of people who are trapped. I sort of envision the prison system as a funnel. And once you're in the system, it's just funneling you further and further down and restricting your choices further and further, including once you've done your time.

For many folks who enter the prison system, they are people who have been sent to our worst schools, they've received the worst health care, they are not well prepared for the legitimate economy, and this incredibly expensive system does nothing to address those facts. I take responsibility for my own actions,…but the idea that personal responsibility is something that will solve the problems that we are currently using prisons to try to solve is ludicrous. I mean, it's a systemic problem. It's not an issue of personal responsibility.

LS: That was very clear in your description of a presentation where prisoners were being told what to wear on a job interview; the women seemed to be getting no relevant information about how to survive in the world once they actually got out. That was pretty stark.

PK: Yeah, it's very stark. I think a lot of the prisoners who I lived with, you know, liked their prison work on some level and you are paid, as you said, slave wages; literally, the base pay was 14 cents, the top level, the most you could make was generally $1 an hour. But work makes the time go faster, there's no question about that. And most prisoners were completely hip to that. You know, some prisoners were, like, screw this, I am not going to work hard for my jailers. But most prisoners were willing and eager to actively engage in whatever their work situation was.

But the work that you do in a prison is generally to maintain the facility. So especially for female prisoners, the reality of going home and being a plumber -- I mean, I think that's great, and we could probably use more female plumbers -- but the fact of that labor is not all that useful. The prison economy is ironically, disconnected from the real world economy in many senses.

LS: Some prison activists target corporations that use prison labor, like Victoria's Secret, and producers of goods that we use that we don't even know are produced by prison labor. But there's a tension there; clearly prisoners welcome the opportunity to do some sort of work to make the time go by.

PK: And to make the money they need to pay for toothpaste!

LS: Right -- it's incredibly rigged, then. That's something many people don't realize. That prisoners otherwise won't have basic needs met.

PK: But when you step back and say, is the way that we have relied on prisons to theoretically address problems associated with poverty, it's not working. There's a reason two-thirds of all people who come home from prison end up back in is because they're not prepared for the legitimate economy and there's nothing that happens behind prison bars that prepares you. If anything, almost everything that happens behind prison walls serves to detach you further and further from the outside world.

LS: In your case, prison seemed almost, in spite of the way it's set up, to serve a rehabilitative purpose in the sense that you really confronted the mistakes that you made and the way they affected other people. But it seems that everything about prison is so punitive that that's not really the effect that it usually has.

PK: Right, but that wasn't the design of my sentence. That's more of something that I arrived at on my own. There's very little restorative justice built into the U.S. system of justice.

LS: Restorative justice is an old idea that has not been tried to its full potential in the U.S. Is there a country or a model that you see as a viable alternative, should the political will ever be there?

PK: I mean, I'm not an expert in restorative justice, but the concept that a punishment for a crime should be linked very directly to whatever harm the offender has caused is very logical. But everything about the way that our system works really detaches the offender from whatever it is that they've done, to a degree that I think is really hard to grasp if you've never been in the system. The effect of a lengthy prison sentence on a individual is simply that you are trying to survive the sentence. Believe me, you're not sitting there -- I mean, some people are self-reflective about what's happened in their life that brought them to this point, but the demands of surviving the prison system are absolutely what is top of mind. And I think that really runs counter to the idea of having sanctions that work and that are meaningful.

Again, if all the people in our prisons were in fact, irredeemably violent and bent on malevolent aims, that would be one thing. That's not the case. Many people who have made bad decisions, and done bad things, and there's a lot of other people who are really caught up in underground economies in which they're bit players but the idea that those people are irredeemable is completely wrong.

LS: You describe very vividly the way in which warehousing people in prison is such a massive waste of human potential and human life. For people who do anti-death penalty work, the "just" alternative that is often pointed to, including by many in the anti-death penalty camp, is life without parole. And yet, if you condemn a prisoner to die in prison, whether it is in the execution chamber or not -- you basically are saying, "You're done, you have failed as a human." What do you think about the fact that parole is being granted less and less and that sentences of life without parole are on the rise?

PK: I think it's a tough sentence. I am anti-death penalty; I think there is no defense of the death penalty in its realistic practice.

Life without parole -- the thing that is most disturbing for me is life without parole for juveniles, which is shocking and terrible. I was in prison with a lot of young women, 18 and 19 years old. And I think anyone who has a teenager knows the difference between the way an adult understands the world and understands their actions and what influences them to a point where they take an antisocial action, So that's particularly disturbing for me, the sentence of life without parole for juveniles.

LS: The Supreme Court is going to rule on that any day now.

PK: It'll be very interesting and of course the U.S. is one of the only places in the world where that happens.

LS: Going back to how you tell your story, I enjoyed the way you used the Martha Stewart case as a sort of meta-narrative -- the parallel, in the sense that she was this unlikely prisoner who found herself confronted with the prospect of going to a women's prison. Aside from providing much-needed context for the reader in terms of time and place -- since so much of what you wrote about was happening in this void -- what purpose did the Martha Stewart narrative serve for readers?

PK: The truth is, for readers, it is really a way of helping organize time as you move your way through the book, because I think that an accurate reflection of life in prison is sort of this diffuse meaning that time begins to have -- even though the rituals of time-keeping are really, really important and they are built into the structure of how a prison runs and of course into the experience of a prisoner. So that was the most important reason she was in there, was to help remind the reader where we are -- and also where we are in time in terms of where they were in the outside world because it probably is something that they remember reading about in the papers.

LS: Yeah, as far as mentions of the outside world, there was that, and then there was when the Red Sox won the World Series, and then a few mentions of Afghanistan. Otherwise, you realize how deep inside a void you are. And yet, you were also reading the New Yorker and had access to information.

PK: You know, everyone has their own way of doing their time. Some people tenaciously want to stay on top of everything that's happening in the outside world because it helps them feel connected. Some people have the opposite reaction, they find that reading and hearing about a world in which they are not participating makes them crazy … The papers would come a day late (as a means of control), and I would read the papers. But the impact of what was happening -- for example the presidential race was going on happening at that time -- couldn't have been further away, really. People were much more interested in the Martha Stewart trial than they were in the presidential race.

The reality is that the life of the institution really overtakes your life. And that's one of the reasons that re-entry is so much more difficult than anyone who has no experience with the system can even realize. The degree to which the institution dominates the life of the individual is near complete, without a really conscious resistance, in terms of keeping your mind sharp, your body sharp, you know, holding on to the things that are within your control when almost nothing is within your control.

LS: Related to that, relationships that formed among prisoners was probably one of the most moving parts of the book, and I was interested in the way you described the kind of family units that were formed, the "mother/daughter" relationships, especially.

PK: My lawyer said to me [after] I had been sentenced and designated to Danbury -- I was able to afford a really great private attorney, which very few people who are in the system are -- and he said to me, "My advice to you is to try not to make any friends." [Laughs] And I just don't know how a person could realistically survive the experience on an emotional or mental level. It's a really intense experience that people are going through together and it's a very negative experience. But it does sort of bind folks in unlikely ways.

Those family trees were really fascinating. A lot of folks are very interested in sexual or romantic relationships, but I think the primary relationship paradigm is the mother/daughter relationship. Either an older prisoner would take a younger prisoner under her wing, or sometimes a younger prisoner would sort of attach herself to an older prisoner from whom she needed guidance or help -- there are a lot of very young women in prison. I don't know if there's anything comparable in men's prisons or not. But the interrelations that sort of branch out were fascinating, wherein the order woman who I was really close with had other younger women who were her friends. So there was a conferred relationship between myself and them, regardless of race, regardless of what we were about as individuals.

LS: Have you managed to keep in touch at all with people who you knew?

PK: If you are on supervised release you are not supposed to have any contact with anyone who has a criminal record and if you are you are supposed to report it to your probation officer. I have been off probation for a number of years. I have been in touch with some people … people like Sister Ardeth Platte, who is a nonviolent peaceful protester and a Roman Catholic nun who was locked up for almost four years with two other nuns for cutting a fence in Colorado and doing a nonviolent protest at a missile silo. I wanted to use her real name in the book and she gave me permission, which was lovely.

But they are really intense relationships, so folks have really mixed emotions, aside from the legal prohibitions on contact. But the people who I have been in touch with, especially recently, it's reassuring to know that they have moved on with their lives. You know, there are also women who I know who have gone back into the system, which is pretty heartbreaking for me. Especially since some of them are younger women who I knew. That makes me really sad.

LS: That reality sort of looms overhead of the book too, when you describe people going home and what a momentous occasion it is.

PK: Well, it is a momentous occasion and there's an anticipation that's just really physically and mentally intense for folks, especially as you get within two months, three months -- that's when you're really counting every single day. What was so sobering for me was seeing the women who are afraid to go home. It's devastating. There are a lot of women who were just going home to incredibly uncertain futures. Going home to homeless shelters in many instances, going home to a setting where they were not going to be able to work as construction workers or carpenters or in the greenhouse.

Some of those women were very scared of the temptation of drugs and alcohol, because those were huge factors in what landed them in prison … Women who are in prison are much more likely to have been victims of violence, either in their recent history or throughout their life. And those were really sobering truths to see play out right in front of you.