A decade ago, Piper Kerman spent just over a year in American jails – most of that time in the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Conn.
Why? Because years earlier, she did what a lot of kids in college or fresh out of college do – she made a dumb mistake. Smitten by a worldly neighbour named “Nora,” who worked for a drug cartel, Kerman eventually agreed to be the bagman, taking currency across European borders.
She wasn’t violent; she realized she was in too deep and got away from it all. But her past caught up with her one day when the feds came to her door and arrested her, and the New England-raised woman was put behind bars. The experience led to her writing a memoir, Orange is the New Black, on which the acclaimed Netflix series was based.
Kerman will be at the Winspear on May 6, to speak about her experiences as part of the Unique Lives and Experiences series.
What Kerman saw at Danbury opened her eyes to some harsh realities of the American justice system. She saw a lot of women in prison for crimes that were related to drugs or living in abusive homes. She saw mothers separated from their children.
She says that, even though the violent crime rate is falling in Western nations, prison populations in America “go up and up and up” because prison is seen as a solution for issues that are better treated at the community level, like drug addiction, mental illness and abuse.
“We have been using incarceration as part of our drug policy for 30 years now,” she says. “But now, drugs are easier to get and they are more potent than ever before. If the idea was to use incarceration as a way to stop the demand, then the policy is a total failure.”
Kerman writes about a system that prioritizes revenge over justice and does not properly prepare prisoners for release.
“I keep in touch with many of the people I wrote about, and some have gone and done really well. Some have started families; some have finished college. One went into coaching and was with one of the U.S. Olympic teams. And some haven’t done so well. And it all depends on the people and situations you have when you get home.”
Kerman eventually had to face “Nora” – in a Chicago prison. Does she still keep in touch with the woman who led her down that path?
“She’s home now; she is doing well. We’ve talked a little bit. Not a lot of the time.”