Since getting out of prison in 2005, Piper Kerman has been pounding the pulpit for criminal-justice reform. Her prison memoir, Orange Is the New Black , attracted the attention of producer Jenji Kohan, who adapted it into a critically acclaimed Netflix series. Kerman has used the success of the show and her book as a chance to speak with audiences about her experiences and the atrocity of mass incarceration. In advance of her presentation at the Lone Tree Arts Center on May 22, Westword spoke with Kerman about her book, the show and the prison system. See also: Sister Helen Prejean fights the death penalty with opera
Westword: Talk about what you're doing in Colorado.
Piper Kerman: I'll be visiting Colorado and the Lone Tree Arts Center, which is exciting. I always try to talk about my own work, the experience behind the book, why I thought it was important to write the book and a bit about the process of adapting the book into the series. I think that people are interested in this story because it has relevance to so many other Americans' stories, because of the size and the scope of our prison system and our criminal justice system. On some level, the narrative is a way into something that we grapple with as a country.
Talk about your own prison experience and how it relates to the broader criminal justice system.
We have the biggest prison population in the world. We have the biggest prison population in human history, here in the United States. In a relatively short time, in one generation, we have invested so deeply in incarceration. Our prison population has grown from 500,000 in 1980 to 2.4 million today. It's been massive growth. The fastest-growing segment of our criminal justice system and that prison population has been women. Female incarceration has risen by 800 percentin this country.
What we started doing is putting people in prison who we never would have put in prison before -- folks like low-level, non-violent offenders, especially for drug offenses. That's really reflected in my own story. I am a low-level, non-violent drug offender. Many of the women that I was doing time with fit that bill as well. I believe that we've reached a point in this country where most people are questioning whether we have made the best choices. Our crime rates are exceptionally low. They are very low, and they keep going down, and they have been low for a long time. The continuing rise in incarceration does not really correlate with crime.
Talk about the experience with the adaptation -- how that's impacted you and how you have used it as a site for advocacy. The book came out in 2010. I had never written anything for publication before. I was grateful to find readers. I did find this one remarkable reader in Jenji Kohan. She is the woman who created the TV show Weeds. She said, "I'd really like to make this my next project." That was startling, but exciting. Lo and behold, the stars lined up and the project moved forward. It's really fascinating to watch the adaptation process. The show is an adaptation; it's not a biography. Right from the very first episode, there are dramatic departures from the true story I told in the book. I think that's absolutely fine. I think that's great. I think that's what makes it a successful adaptation, rather than a tasteful biopic approach that would not work. They've done a brilliant job. Season 2 is pretty amazing, and I think the viewers are really going to enjoy it.
Some people think there are so many issues that concern people. Making sure reforming criminal justice is a priority is sometimes challenging with folks whose lives have not been touched directly, who have not been incarcerated themselves, who have not had a loved one go through the system. The truth is, it affects millions and millions of Americans' lives and most particularly Americans who are poor and are from the most vulnerable communities. It is not a fringe issue.
It counts for an enormous amount of public spending. It affects many people's lives. Having something in place in pop culture that really focuses on those questions in a way that is engaging and tells really fascinating stories is important to remind folks that this is a central issue for us as a culture and as a community. Talk about your experience since the book came out. What has been your own personal journey, and where has that gone?
I'm so lucky. I was released from prison in 2005, and unlike most of the 700,000 people who are coming home from jail every year, I was coming home to a safe and stable place to live, first and foremost, but also, when I was coming home, I had a job that I started a week after, and that is just so important, I can't over state it. I've always worked in communications, and after I went through that process of reentry, I fairly quickly shifted my work into public interest communications. So I had the opportunity, long before the book came out and the show came out, to work with nonprofits and with advocates on a host of issues.
Obviously, criminal justice reform is closest to my heart. I do anything that I can do personally to help try to elevate those issues and help people who work on the ground in the states where most of the good reform is frankly happening. It is a really great opportunity, from my point of view. Read on to find out Piper Kerman's thoughts on Colorado prison issues.
Are there specific issues in Colorado that you're trying to address while you're here or groups that you're connecting with? Colorado has been a lot more thoughtful and, in some ways, a lot more progressive than many other places, taking under consideration what would improve your criminal justice system. I think it's really important to give kudos and recognition to that.
Obviously, the whole country is looking at what happens as you go through the process of legalizing marijuana. That's not necessarily an issue that I'm an expert in, but I do believe it's the right direction to move in, and I think that decriminalizing low-level drug offenses is really important. Those are, by and large, the folks who have flooded into our prisons and jails and cycled through our prisons and jails unnecessarily. That's really important.
I think that Colorado also has good leadership around public defense. Public defense reform is one of those under-the-radar issues which I think is very important and could have a transformative effect, because 80 percent of criminal defendants are too poor to afford a lawyer. If they're lucky, they're going to get a public defender. They will get court-appointed counsel, depending on the offense. But here's the thing: A lot of poor defendants don't really receive their Sixth amendment rights. They aren't really realized. Too often, in this country, public defense is not what we expect it to be. And so, if every defendant had a good defense, we would see fewer people go to prison in the first place, and we would see people go to prison for shorter and more sensible sentences. This is something that is really significant, and I think that Colorado is ahead of the pack, but there's always room for improvement. Talk about audience response when you give these talks. So many people who know you through the show or through your book already have this deeply formed personal relationship with you. What is that like?
I think as a writer, it's spectacular to have folks be interested in your work and want to read it. I think the show is great, and I think what the show does, which is so important, is the same thing I was setting out to do in the book. It declares that these 2.4 million people in prisons and jails are just that. They are still people. They're not simply convicts, or criminals or felons, or all those other words we tend to use first. They are people. They're human. They have these fascinating histories. Their lives have value and meaning. So I find that folks come out, and they come with that as their launching pad. Of course, when you talk about issues of crime and punishment, everyone brings a lot of opinions and, in some cases, experience to these questions. It makes for a really lively and interesting conversation, no matter where I go in the country.
What are the new writing projects you're working on?
I'm working on a number of different things. I definitely remain centrally interested in the criminal justice system. I think no more memoirs, at least maybe not for another 44 years. There is so much to think about and write about. The criminal justice system is very sprawling when you think about policing and courts and prison and jails and reentry. There is a lot to chew on.
I'm super-excited to come to Colorado. While Colorado has been more progressive than other parts of the country, one of the issues with our significant investment in prisons to jails is that once you build them and once people have a significant stake in the status quo, basically when they've got their skin in the game, that makes it challenging to make reforms. I think we see that playing out in Colorado, just like we see that playing out in other places in the country. It's really a great privilege and opportunity to have all these conversations on the issue. Kerman's presentation begins at 7:30 p.m. at the Lone Tree Arts Center, 10075 Commons Street in Lone Tree. Tickets are $40 to $50 for general admission, and $75 for premium seating and a meet-and-greet with the author. For tickets, call 720-509-1000; for more information, go to lonetreeartscenter.org.
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