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From Prisoner to Reformer

A Q&A with 'Orange Is the New Black' author Piper Kerman

By Amy Smith, 2:58PM, Fri. May. 9

Piper Kerman
Piper Kerman

Orange Is the New Black author Piper Kerman was in town Wednesday to keynote a benefit for the Council on At-Risk Youth. Since the publication of her bestselling prison memoir, which led to the popular Netflix series, Kerman has become a leading advocate for criminal justice reform. We spoke with her on the morning before her talk.

Austin Chronicle: You’re going to speak to a group of people who work with kids who are at risk of possibly ending up on a path to prison. What message do you have for people who work with at-risk kids?

Piper Kerman: Well, the Council on At-Risk Youth has been doing their work for a long time and they have great, great success and an amazing track record to show for their work with kids who are most at risk for being pushed to the margins of society. And when I say the margins of society, there’s nothing more marginal than putting somebody in prison or jail.

Everywhere I go in this country, when I talk about my own experience and my own perspective on our criminal justice system, folks ask, “Well, what’s to be done? How can we not have the biggest prison population in human history?” There’s so much room for reform you can almost start anywhere, but I think the most important place to start is at the beginning of the system and at the beginning of the journey for many individuals. So I talk about sentencing reform … to have more common-sense sentencing, and I talk about under-the-radar things like public defense, the fact that not everyone’s Sixth Amendment rights [the right to a speedy trial] are really realized.

And the third thing I talk about is about being truly transformative in terms of having a criminal justice system that looks really different, and a much smaller prison population is juvenile justice, and the way that we treat kids in the system. We know that frequently when we put a kid in a juvenile prison while another kid who committed the same offense is kept in the community but gets the discipline and also the help that they need, that kid is much more likely to go forward and be successful.

The kid that we put in juvenile prison is more likely to go forward and commit more crimes in the future. So we know the incarceration of children is not a solution, and that’s why organizations like the Council on At-Risk Youth are so important, because they take kids who are really struggling and they help them get on a much better path. So I think everyone can see that not only is that important for those individuals, those young people, but it yields dividends for us as a community, because the cost of helping a kid through an organization like the Council on At-Risk Youth is very low – it’s $750 per youth per year, as opposed to $125,000 a year for Texas taxpayers to lock up a child.

AC: Wow.

PK: That is no joke. And so, again, the real dividend though, is that when those kids are on a better path and they’re not going to be involved with the criminal justice system as adults, that’s equally as important as that very significant cost differential.

AC: Well you have certainly studied Texas’ prisons and juvenile justice system.

PK: Well you know Texas has done great things. I mean, as much as Texas has a reputation as having doubled down really hard on prisons, Texas has also done important reforms in recent years, which have significantly reduced the overall prison population with no increase in crime. We’ve done the same thing in New York where I live, which is a very different place from all perspectives [laughs], including political, but I just think it’s so important to remind folks that this can be done, because the size of our prison population is not a reflection of our crime rates; our crime rates are very low and they’ve been low for a long time. So the things that Texas has done to – my understanding is that Texas has reduced its prison population by as much as 20 percent, which is huge. And again, with no increase in the crime rate, so that is really, really important stuff in terms of saving taxpayers’ money, in terms of having more bountiful and productive communities out here on the outside.

AC: And we’re all about saving taxpayer money in Texas.

PK: Well if we’re going to spend any taxpayer money, let’s spend it on productive things and not on prisons and jail cells.

AC: Yes, exactly. Now, you’re situation was a little different, you went to good schools, you were on a path to success … how do you identify those women or girls who might someday be susceptible to criminal behavior? How do you intervene? Is it even possible?

PK: Oh, it’s definitely possible. There are three key things that we know really drives women’s involvement in crime. And sometimes they overlap. Substance abuse – we know that a huge percentage of women in prison or jail have a substance abuse problem. Mental health – either mental illness or mental health problems – so 75 percent of women and girls in the system suffer from mental illness of some form. And perhaps the most significant or central problem is that 80 to 90 percent of women and girls in the criminal justice system report the experience of sexual abuse or other physical abuse as part of their personal history. So if we actually address all or any of those three issues out here in the community we would see far fewer women and girls in prisons and jails.

Making sure that actual victims of sexual abuse or other physical abuse get the help they need much, much earlier in the game is probably the number one thing, because so often the mental health issue and the substance abuse problems follow along after that kind of victimization.

And those are the three things that consistently drive women’s involvement in crime.

AC: I don’t know how many times you’ve testified before Congressional committees but I did see one video clip of you testifying on the need for mental health programs in women’s prisons. Have you seen progress or any hint of progress in that area?

PK: I would say that we’ve seen progress in the sense of much wider acknowledgement of this being something we need to correct. The three biggest providers of mental health care in this country are Rikers Island, the Cook County Jail, and the L.A. county jail. So three large, municipal jails are the three largest providers of mental health care. I think across the board you get agreements that that’s a mistake; it’s not as though correctional officials want to be responsible for providing mental health care to the community – that’s not their job, that’s not their role, and yet they’re thrust into that role. It’s going to take – back to this question of how do we spend the tax dollars we choose to spend – investing those dollars in the community in mental health care would make a lot more sense than investing in prisons and jail cells because, as anyone would tell you, including every prison warden in this country, a jail cell doesn’t make a mentally ill person healthier and better.

AC: So true. Are you familiar with a report that was released last month by the University of Texas Law School Human Rights Clinic that detailed the lack of air conditioning in Texas prisons?

PK: I have not read the report but I’ve heard about the report.

AC: And it sounds like a no-brainer, putting air conditioning in Texas prisons. There’ve been several heat-related deaths in state-run prisons just in the last three years. I was wondering if this comes as a surprise to you and whether you’ve found similar circumstances in other states.

PK: I can’t comment specifically on the report’s contents, but I know I’ve heard of very inhumane conditions in places like Arizona, which has some of the same physical conditions as perhaps part of Texas. I think that folks should keep in mind that people feel like prison should be horrible – prison is horrible – no one should imagine that prisons and jails are not punitive. But the problem is this: 95 percent of the people in our prisons and jails – and I think actually the number is probably higher – are coming home someday to our communities.

So if we design our prisons and jails to be these very brutalizing places, then we will have people coming home from prisons and jails who have been brutalized; and their crimes vary – as we all know we put a lot of nonviolent offenders in prison in this country. But if prisons and jails are designed to brutalize people who are then dumped back onto the street after having had those experiences, that is not a recipe for public safety.

AC: How did your prison experience – you were there for just over a year – how did that make you a better person?

PK: I think the most important thing for me is that I’ve been an extremely fortunate person my entire life. I come from a middle-class home, which was safe and stable; my parents were school teachers – they’re retired now; I was fortunate to have a top-quality education, then I went to a private college and continued to get a great education. No one can ever take your education away from you.

So when I went into the criminal justice system and sort of traversed it – and I’m talking about the whole process, the court system and the prison system, I just was stunned and shocked by the things that I learned. I think that we have a lot of very important American ideals around fairness and our thoughts and imagination about how the criminal justice system works. But the reality is very different, and if you are not as fortunate as I, if you come from a poor community, a poor family, a vulnerable community, you are going to have a very different experience than what I had, in terms of being able to afford a lawyer, in terms of how you may be treated, in terms of whether you have something like a top-quality education to draw down on and so, I could not walk away from that experience. So even though we think that every American should be equal in a court of law, that’s just not how it plays out.

Instead of being a bastion of equality, our courts are a crucible of inequality, and that’s the number one thing that I think about every single day. Even though I was lucky enough to only spend one year in prison, there are other women who I was doing time with whose lives were different in many respects than mine.

Of course, anyone who goes into prison can tell you that finding common ground is the single most important part of survival in that setting. And so that is something that is also real important in that it was not actually hard for me to find common ground with all these other women I was doing time with because we all have a shared humanity.

AC: Good point. I was going through your book last night and I was reminded of one chapter [Mothers and Daughters], since Mother’s Day is coming up, where you describe the relationships between women and the different roles that women take on once they enter prison, and wow, you just super nailed it.

PK: Thank you. I think that is fundamentally the single most important thing … we talk about women in prison especially … the relationship between mother and child. And that’s true whether it’s the child or whether it’s the mother who’s locked up. It’s just very profound and very important.

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