By Amy Wolf, Assistant Director of Communications and Marketing
Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, posed a question for Upper School students: What does 650% represent? While some students had their guesses, no one knew the surprising answer: The incarceration rate for women in the U.S. has increased 650% over the last 40 years.
“You’re probably thinking, ‘Wow, how did I miss this female crime wave? There must have been a total outbreak in crime committed by women.’ And that’s not the case,” Kerman said during her presentation, which took place via Zoom. “During this time period of this incredible explosion of the incarceration of women, there was not a crime wave. Women are overwhelmingly incarcerated for low-level offenses; two-thirds of women are incarcerated for a nonviolent offense.”
Kerman, who was indicted on charges of money laundering in the late ’90s, shared her story—the story that inspired the popular Netflix show Orange is the New Black—with Upper School students as part of the Forum Speaker Series on Thursday, April 2. The Forum, the theme of which for the 2019-2020 school year is Personal Perspectives on Justice and Incarceration in America, was established in 1998 by the Rappolt family in honor of their children Gabrielle ’93, Sarah ’96 and Bill ’99, and in recognition of the dedication, scholarship and professionalism of the Tower Hill faculty.
In February 2004, more than a decade after she committed her crime, Kerman arrived at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut, to begin her sentence. She was put into general population with hundreds of other women, many of whom came up to her and asked if she had toothpaste, if she needed shower shoes and if she would like a cup of instant coffee. The kindness surprised her.
The federal bureau of prisons does not give inmates shampoo, soap, toothpaste or any of the things needed to survive on a daily basis, so it was one of the last things she expected on her first day in prison to experience kindness at the hands of the other women who were there, yet that is exactly what happened.
“We very intentionally build prisons and jails in this country to be harshly punitive and extremely difficult places for people to survive, and yet people will find a way to bring some sort of personality and their own sense of individuality and humanity into things, no matter how harsh we make those places,” Kerman said.
Hannah Zhou ’22 was also surprised to hear about the initial kindness Kerman experienced.
“Her anecdote about how the other women in the prison treated her so kindly surprised me and changed my perception of the prison atmosphere,” Zhou said. “Generally, this was very inspiring because I could see how one person can make a change if they choose to take action on injustice.”
When Kerman came home from prison in 2005, she found that almost every person she knew wanted to hear about her experience. She decided to write the book, hoping that if she did it the right way that somebody would read the book who would not otherwise read a book about prison.
“The United States incarcerates more of its own people than any other nation in the world by far,” Kerman said. “And I thought that if we were going to be the most incarcerated nation in human history, more people should know about it, and more people should think about it and have more accurate information. I really hoped that someone would come away from the book with a more realistic and accurate idea of who is in prison in this country and what really happens to people behind the wire.”
Toward the end of her presentation, Kerman shared some staggering statistics: 48,000 children are incarcerated in the U.S., some as young as 8 years old; the percentage of people who are 55 and older in prison increased by more than 300% between 2000 and 2016; and crime rates in America have been declining steadily since the early 1990s and are at record lows.
“I appreciated how Ms. Kerman integrated the relevant statistics into her presentation, and it was interesting to see how much the percentage of incarcerated women has increased in the past few decades despite no increase in crime,” Charles Habgood ’23 said. “I also thought it was respectable how she took complete responsibility for her illegal action and understood the consequences.”
Kerman currently works as a communications consultant with nonprofits, philanthropies and other organizations working in the public interest. Most recently, she has been working with other advocates to reduce overcrowded prison populations in an effort to flatten the curve of COVID-19 infections.
“We are working very hard to try to save lives and also to try to flatten the curve, because it is not possible to keep a COVID-19 outbreak behind prison walls,” Kerman said. “It will spread to the outside community when prison workers go in and out of the prison, and also, the sickest prisoners are going to have to be taken out of the prisons into hospitals, which are already overburdened.”
Kerman said she is grateful that she is able to use her voice to bring change to the U.S. criminal justice system by educating people on prison conditions, shedding light on inequality in the criminal justice system and showing compassion for those convicted of crimes and their families.
In her memoir, she wrote, “Every human being makes mistakes and does things they’re not proud of. They can be everyday or they can be catastrophic. And the unfortunate truth of being human is that we all have moments of indifference to other people’s suffering. To me that’s the central thing that allows crime to happen.”