March 26, 2014

Piper Kerman Shares the True Faces of Incarcerated Women

Posted in Events, Kids-A-Part, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services tagged , , , , , , , , at 12:11 pm by Lund

22 years ago when Piper Kerman was an undergraduate at Smith College, her life was probably very much like that of many of the audience members at last night’s talk at UVM.  She’s white, middle class, educated and privileged.  She’s also a convicted felon who, in 2004, spent 13 months in a federal correctional facility serving a sentence for a crime she committed in her early 20’s.  We know this story well thanks to her book, ‘Orange is the New Black’ which was adapted into a hugely popular Netflix TV series of the same name.   Piper is unlike most women who spend time incarcerated and she could have turned her back on them and her whole experience when she left prison in 2005, but she didn’t.  She wrote the book and gave her acquiescence to the TV series which deviates in many ways from her experience and is now expanding into a second season the narrative trajectory of which has long left Piper Kerman behind.   She could have turned her back then but again she didn’t.  She is currently on the board of the Women’s Prison Association and travels widely promoting prison reform and giving voice to a growing population of women who don’t have the same opportunities to be heard.

Piper Kerman on stage at UVM's Davis Center March 25, 2014.

Piper Kerman on stage at UVM’s Davis Center March 25, 2014.

The room was packed at UVM and of course some were there to hear about the more salacious aspects of prison life that are played up in the Netflix series, but many were there to hear the thing that Piper really wanted to share – who are these women, why are they there and what really happens in prison.  Piper stated at the beginning of her talk that it was important that the people in the room be able to imagine themselves in her shoes, or the shoes of other women in the prison and ask themselves, “What if it were me?” She told real stories of women she had met – Pom-Pom, whose mother had been in the same jail and who left the jail before Piper and wrote to her that she was homeless, had no coat and no thanksgiving dinner and that she missed the women in the prison and felt like they were her true family.  Pom-Pom’s story was the perfect example of the devastating cycles of poverty, abuse and addiction.  She stated that she wrote the book because she wanted people to care about Pom-Pom as much as she did.   She also showed pictures of women who she works with at the Women’s Prison Association who were now out of jail and trying hard to make their lives better despite the extreme challenges of poverty, unemployment and substance abuse.  She asked that we judge these women, herself included,  on their best days and their best actions, not just on their worse.

Piper mentioned that one of the first things that shocked her on her arrival in prison was seeing a heavily pregnant woman.  She said that she was confused and did not understand what she was doing there, a pregnant woman in jail.  She stated that she wished that all women could have their babies outside of jail and mentioned that in many states incarcerated women have to give birth while shackled.  She was quick to follow with the fact that Vermont is not one of these states which elicited spontaneous applause from the audience.  She also spoke of the 1.3 million dependent children who currently have a mother in jail, a number which jumps to 7 million when you include those who have either or both of their parents in jail.  She mentioned again and again that incarceration does not just affect the inmate, that the repercussions are much wider.  Ties to family and the community outside the prison were so important to all the women during their incarceration and gave them the motivation to go on.  The knowledge that they were going to go home eventually was everything, but she was quick to qualify that many of the women, unlike her,  could not take for granted that they had a safe and stable home to go back to.

The problems were outlined well – an 800% increase in the rate of incarceration of women leading to terrible overcrowding, a lack of support for women once they leave jail, cycles of poverty, the ravaging effects of drug addiction and abuse, a nation of 5% of the world’s population holding 25% of the world’s prisoners – and Piper’s ideas to help were clearly outlined at the end of her talk.  She suggests:

1.  Common sense sentencing – reduce drug sentencing, promote treatment alternatives instead of incarceration, work on public safety solutions that don’t involve prison, handle mental health issues within the realm of human services not corrections.

2.  Public defense reform – 80% of defendants are too poor to afford a lawyer who can represent them with time and diligence.  Public defenders are massively overworked and ill equipped to deal with the volume and complexity of defendants that they must serve.

3.  Children in the system – both the problems in the juvenile system and the number of young people who are wrongly sent into the adult corrections system desperately need to be addressed.

It would have been very easy for Piper Kerman to walk away from jail on that cold Chicago morning in 2005 when she was released, wearing an overly large men’s windbreaker with $28 care of the U.S. Federal Corrections Department, and never look back.  But for her, to return to her fiance, her life and her stable comfortable existence would have been a betrayal of all the women she had met during her time in prison.  The women who had helped her to adjust and to learn the rules, spoken and unspoken, that would do something to alleviate the discomfort and shock of her arrival.  Her talk was upfront, touching and most importantly very real.   She did not glamorize her time or boast of her own strength and resilience and most importantly she took ownership of how her crime played a part in the struggle with addiction faced by so many of the women that she met.

The growing prison population is a serious concern in the United States but is not something most people think about since prison and prisoners by design exist on the margins of society.  Piper Kerman’s talk brought the issues and more importantly the stories and the faces into the forefront last night and it was hard to walk away without thinking, even for just a moment, “that could be me”.

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