April 1, 2014

Piper Kerman presents 3-point plan for prison reform

It can be fortunate for the world when a middle-class person with a social conscience gets hauled off to prison.

After spending a year in a women's prison, Piper Kerman wrote the bestselling memoir Orange is the New Black, which spawned a hit Netflix series that has galvanized the public. Now, she is jet-setting around the country, raising awareness on the U.S. prison crisis among people who have given it nary a thought up until now.

Last night, San Francisco's intelligentsia came out en masse to hear the celebrity ex-prisoner at a City Arts and Lectures benefit for an innovative university program at San Quentin Prison. The venue was the splendid Nourse Theater, a newly renovated, 1,800-seat Beaux-Arts palace that had been shuttered for decades.

Kerman did not disappoint. She remained poised and affable as her interviewer, author Nancy Mullane, peppered her with a series of alternately prurient and silly questions about sex in prison, her life as a 10-year-old, and similar drivel. It was disappointing yet illuminating to see Mullane -- who should know better, given her recent interviews with ex-convicts for her book Life After Murder -- fritter away a golden opportunity. Instead of helping Kerman express her critical message, she ogled and dehumanized her guest as an exotic "other," ironically showcasing the very disrespect of ex-convicts that Kerman has dedicated herself to combating.

It was not until the informed and perceptive audience's turn to ask questions that Kerman got the air space to expound on her vision for reforming America's prisons, which are bursting at the seams with 2.4-million members of this wealthy nation's neglected underclass.

Three transformative steps we could take to restore rationality, in Kerman's view:
  1. Reform draconian sentencing laws. The harms outweigh the benefits of sentences longer than five years, especially for nonviolent crimes. Reentry becomes more difficult, harming not just the prisoner but his or her family, community and larger society.

  2. Provide adequate defense services. If everyone was afforded access to zealous representation, a far smaller proportion would end up in prison. Public defender offices throughout the nation are stretched too thin, leading to unjust outcomes for the poor.

  3. Stop criminalizing children. Paying attention to at-risk children and adolescents makes more sense than waiting until they have become hardened criminals and then warehousing them. And, stressed Kerman, children should never, ever be sent to adult prisons. 

A perfect agenda.

Taylor Schilling plays "Piper Chapman" in the TV series
(Of course, it assumes a degree of rationality that is absent from contemporary U.S. policies, and it is also at odds with the massive privatization movement that relies on prisoner bodies for its profits.)

Kerman also answered a couple of questions that I had been curious about, including her motivation for writing the book, and what she thought of the TV show that radically distorts her memoir.

Kerman said she is not disturbed by the liberties taken by Jenji Kohan in writing the Netflix adaptation. Going to prison is an introspective experience that can only be captured in writing, whereas a TV drama relies on interpersonal conflict to keep its audience's attention, explained Kerman, herself a theater major in college.

From Season Two, premiering June 6
In her memoir, Kerman projects herself as a typical privileged person. The young Smith College graduate fell into a relationship with an older woman who turned out to be a drug smuggler, and ended up smuggling a suitcase full of drug money across international borders. Years later, a federal indictment was handed down, and she landed in federal prison, an awkward setting for a young middle-class woman, and most especially a blonde.  

But the story she revealed last night was a bit more nuanced, and helps to explain how she ended up in her present role as a voice for justice. She was raised in a progressive, feminist household, with two teachers for parents. This likely equipped her both to get along well and make connections in prison, as she did, and to be outraged and galvanized by the inequities she witnessed.

She wrote her memoir neither as an exercise in catharsis (she didn't even keep a journal in prison, she confessed) nor to share with other prisoners and ex-prisoners (although she is happy that many of them can relate), but with the aim of reaching a mainstream audience heretofore ignorant of prison realities.

In that, she has undoubtedly succeeded beyond her wildest expectations.

* * * * *

Thanks to Lorelei for providing helpful feedback. For more background, and my reaction to the book and TV series, see my Jan. 20 post, Orange is the New Black – Read the Book!

(c) Copyright Karen Franklin 2014 - All rights reserved

No comments: