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2018 News Piper Kerman
April 24, 2018 : Kennedy Series Lecturer Piper Kerman, Author Of The Memoir ‘Orange Is The New Black,’ Delivered Inspiring Keynote


And it was at that point she realized she had crossed a line that should never have been crossed. She was in a situation that she didn’t know how to navigate.


These were the feelings expressed by Piper Kerman, author of the memoir “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison,” during Ohio University Chillicothe’s Kennedy Lecture in the Bennett Hall Auditorium on April 17, 2018. The book is a representation of race, class, gender, power, friendship, and empathy – all themes found in prison.


With at least 200 attendees in the audience, the crowd listened intently as Kerman gave a quick synopsis of her life and words of hope for the future.


Soon after Kerman graduated from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1992, she began an adventurous lifestyle with a friend. Not long into the relationship, Kerman realized that her friend was living a reckless life as a heroin dealer, and when she was begged to carry money from Chicago to Brussels, she knew at that point that she was in a predicament.


Not too long after Kerman ended the relationship, she returned to the United States, and picked up where she left off. “It was 1998 and I heard a knock at the door,” Kerman stated as she knocked on the podium. “Well, it was actually a door bell,” as she engaged the audience. “I answered the door and standing in front of me were a couple of federal officers. They informed me that I was to appear in court on an indictment. The officers implied that I would be serving time and at that point I knew.”


In 1998, Kerman pleaded guilty to money laundering and was sentenced for the felony. Nearly a decade after the crime, Kerman turned herself in to the Federal Correctional Institute in Danbury, Connecticut, where she served 13 months of a 15-month sentence.


“I thought I had done everything to prepare myself for that moment,” said Kerman. “But when we pulled up, I got really scared. As the guards and myself moved further and further into the penitentiary, I started to feel more and more alone.”  


Upon Kerman’s arrival, some of her fellow inmates asked if she had the necessary items to survive in the days to come. Unfortunately, women are totally reliant on the kindness of other women when they arrive to prison. That is, until she can receive funds to pay for such items.

“The idea is not what I thought it would be. Most of the people were nice, and unlike what is implied, women stepped up to help me,” shared Kerman. “The ladies go above and beyond to make sure that you have a powerful, signature welcome – to make sure that you know that you’re not just a number.”


After Kerman’s return home in 2005, she knew that she wanted people to have a different idea of what it is like in a women’s prison and what really happens to them and their families. That was her purpose for writing “Orange is the New Black.”


“Why do we choose to send lots of our own people to prison? That was my motivation for writing the book. My hope was that if I wrote it the right way, in like a pop culture way, that the reader wouldn’t necessarily think that they were reading about prison, and they would grasp the impact that it has on the world,” remarked Kerman.


Unfortunately, in the last 40 years, there has been a 650% increase in the rate of incarcerated women and two-thirds of those women are serving for low-level drug or property crimes. The cause of this drastic increase is due in part to the war on drugs.


Kerman proclaimed, “And why do we choose to incarcerate women more often that we used to?”


Now days, prisons are meant to serve as tools of social power – always focused on the communities and specific populations that the justice system wants to control. “Unfortunately, not all women, or people for that matter, are policed the same. In the U.S., African Americans are four-times more likely to be charged with possession of marijuana than those of another ethnicity,” shared Kerman.


Kerman went on to talk about the costs associated with housing women in a facility and how there are better ways to provide justice.


In 2013, Kerman helped to develop the Women in Prison Project in New York, which recognizes the impact that incarceration has on women and their families. The goal of the Project is to provide alternative means of punishment -- meaning that women can stay connected to their families and become productive citizens while still obtaining the services they need like job preparedness, substance abuse counseling, education, etc.


Not only does this type of punishment lead to better functioning families and reduce the negative impact on the children, but it also much cheaper for the state. Kerman shared, “This program costs $18,000 a year, per person. This may sound like a lot, but it is nothing compared to the costs of incarceration. In New York, it costs $60,000 a year to house a woman in prison and if that woman’s children go to foster care, the price rises to $129,000.”


“If we ever want social equality, we really need to transform the system,” shared Kerman. “What is the point of all the literal cost behind the sentencing if women want to go back to prison, their “home” essentially, or if they go back to doing the same things that will put them right back in the same place.”


Unfortunately, lots of women are scared to transition out of the system. Not only is it hard to jump back into society, but some may have no choice but to put themselves right back into that same situation or household, or they may not have a place to go at all.


Kerman hopes that by advocating for a fairer society and a more just system, and by also continuing to tell her story, that she can encourage others to think about how their choices will affect their future.


“When we recognize just how much our actions will impact others, and that we have the power to help or hurt people, that is the first step in making amends and repairs,” Kerman charged the audience.  


At the present, Kerman lives in Columbus, Ohio with her family and teaches writing at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville and at the Marion Correctional Institution. Her hope is that she can encourage those to get to the root of the cause as to why they are in their situation and that they can move forward.  


“I want us to be judged not only by our worst days, but also our best days.” - Piper Kerman