Source Weekly: Oregon is one of the states that’s pushing to “ban the box,” and help end job discrimination against people with criminal convictions. Have you encountered any difficulties with that personally?
Piper Kerman: For me, I was so incredibly fortunate. I had this strong network of family and friends and former employers, and a guy that I new ran a company and he hired me and I started work the week after I came home from prison. And it’s impossible to overstate the importance of that first job I had coming home from prison. The data also shows that whether someone gets to work right away and whether they earn a living wage, obviously, has a huge impact on recidivism. It’s my point of view that the other thing that’s important, not just the money that you earn for yourself and your family, also, I shed my skin as a prisoner and regained my place as a citizen because of that job. It’s so important. And this is the number one thing that hear from other people who, like me, have a felony conviction. They just apply for hundreds and hundreds of jobs and they can’t get a break.
SW: You mention that privilege pretty early in the book. In what ways do you feel your relative privilege impacted your experience with incarceration and in what ways do you feel like incarceration had a leveling effect?
PK: I think it had a huge amount to do [with it]. I always say that the most unusual thing about my story is not that I committed a crime. Because we know that middle class people and wealthy people commit crimes, they’re just much less likely to be held accountable than poor people. And 80 percent of people accused of a crime are too poor to afford a lawyer to defend them in court, even though that doesn’t necessarily match to everyone that commits a crime. So the most unusual thing about my story is that I was policed and that I was prosecuted and that I was punished with prison. And that has a lot to do with privilege—class privilege, racial privilege. And you know, that’s readily apparent to anybody who looks at the criminal justice system, and it’s ironic because of course we have this expectation that the system will treat all Americans equally and that every American will get a fair day in court, but that just doesn’t match up to reality. So we have a lot of work to do.
While you’re incarcerated, there’s a degree of leveling—everyone’s got eight numbers next to their name—but of course, if you have a family on the outside that is able to come and visit you and to put money on your commissary books, those things make a huge difference. Those lifelines to the outside world are important in terms of people returning home successfully and it seems like being able to afford soap and toothpaste and stamps and phone time are all really important as well.
SW: You’re obviously a big advocate for prison reform. Are there a few reforms you’d most like to see move forward?
PK: I think the number one most important thing is for us to stop putting so many people in prison and jail in the first place. I think there are many people who currently fill up our prisons and jails who shouldn’t be there for a variety of reasons. Either their offense is really low level and doesn’t warrant confinement, [or] in some cases, people’s primary issue may be substance abuse or mental illness, and prisons and jails do nothing really to address those problems. And so, when somebody comes back to the community, which the vast majority of people do, those issues are best solved in the public health system not in the criminal justice system. So there’s a lot of opportunity to get people out of prisons and jails who don’t need to be there without impacting public safety. We know, actually, that the states that have reduced their prison populations the most have also seen the biggest declines in crime, so no one should imagine that having a big prison population is doing a lot to increase public safety, in fact the opposite may be true. So I think that’s the single most important thing.
SW: What do you think are the alternatives to incarceration?
PK: I think that victims of crime have to have a strong voice in what alternatives to incarceration look like because it’s incredibly important to make sure that victims of crime, that the harm to them is recognized and that the system, and also the offender themselves, make those folks whole to whatever extent is possible. That’s important, but it’s also important to recognize that our idea of who is a victim of crime is a little off, because the people who are most likely to be victimized by violence are young men of color, and we rarely think about them as victims of crime and we rarely ask them what needs to be done to make them whole when they get victimized by violence or other crimes. So it’s important to sort of recognize that crime and violence do affect different communities differently and the criminal justice system as it currently functions doesn’t address those things real well. We know that for low level offenders—people who’ve committed low level drug crimes, low level property crimes—that interventions that don’t include incarceration generally get better outcomes.
And so there’s programs like Justice Home, which is run by the women’s prison association where I’m on the board, that’s in New York. Women who are looking at at least a year or more in prison when their district attorney agrees, they get the opportunity to stay in their homes, stay with their kids, go through whatever programs are necessary for them—and it varies—it might be mental health, it might be substance abuse, it might be parenting classes. There’s a variety of things that come into play. And if they complete their program successfully, sometimes they get the chance to actually have their record expunged. And that program has been incredibly successfully. It costs about $17,000 per family, per woman, and incarceration in New York state costs $60,000 a year per person. So it seems to me like a no brainer.
In the Pacific Northwest there’s some really interesting programs that have been done. There’s one in Seattle called LEAD, which stands for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion. And this focuses on certain neighborhoods in Seattle where the local police have been seeing what are often called “frequent fliers,” people who are arrested again and again and again, often for very low level offenses. And LEAD creates an intervention where the cop themselves, the law enforcement professional, maybe catches someone committing a crime or is going to arrest someone for committing a crime, and has the opportunity to give them the opportunity to go into treatment services or get other kinds of help and interventions that they might need rather than being arrested and going to prison. And the program has been in place for several years and the results are quite impressive.
SW: What do you think are the barriers to having more programs like these? As you said, it’s not more expensive. Do you buy into the idea that we’re kind of reliant on the money that the system makes?
PK: Yes. I think that we have built the biggest prison and jail population in human history, and when you build something so big, suddenly, a lot of people start to draw benefit out of it. And I think that is probably the single biggest obstacle to doing more common sense criminal justice, is that a lot of people are making a lot of money off the current system. So it’s incredibly important to address the fact that folks are making a lot of money off the status quo if we want to change the status quo.
SW: Did you encounter a lot of women who were in prison because of their efforts to survive?
PK: Yeah. I mean, again, we see such a vast number of people who are accused of a crime in the court system who come from the poorest communities. And who really are in very desperate straights before they’re arrested. I think that’s true across the board. Certainly if you look at women and girls in the system, you see that to be true. And you see, women do not tend to commit violent offenses. Two-thirds of women and girls in the system are there for non-violent offenses, so they do tend to be drug offenses and property crimes.
SW: To bring it back to the book, can you talk about why you felt moved to write it and why you took that leap to turn it into a now very popular television show?
PK: I just thought that if anybody experienced the things I experienced and saw the things I saw, they would think really differently about the criminal justice system. And they would think really differently about who’s in prison and why they’re there and what really happens to them there, which from my experience, really departed from what many people assume. Many people assume that, first of all, most people don’t necessarily think of women first, people assume that everyone who’s locked up in prison is there for a violent crime, which is not the case. And many people also assume that there’s a lot of rehabilitation happening in prisons and jails, and there’s just not. There’s a lot of warehousing of people. So I hoped that if people thought a little bit differently about the real people who fill up our prisons and jails that they might ask for things to be done differently. And it’s really important for people who are fortunate and who might be lucky enough never to have their lives touched by the criminal justice system to advocate and ask for a better system. Because the people who are most impacted by the criminal justice system tend to come from communities with the least political power.
SW: Did you ever worry that the after the book came out, that it could affect your career or other prospects?
PK: I just always felt like I was fortunate to be able to be straightforward about my past, about my mistakes, and the fact of my incarceration. During that entire six years between pleading guilty and actually being sent to prison we spent a lot of that time trying to keep that under wraps and nobody wants to be living a lie, people want to be able to be honest about themselves, but they also want to be able to move past their past and be able to move forward, that’s a really important opportunity.
SW: What was the biggest mental shift between your perceptions of prison and your experience? What did you learn that you weren’t expecting, or what myths were busted for you?
PK: The thing that I feared, of course, was violence, because that’s associated with prison and prisoners. And some American prisons and jails are extremely violent and dangerous places, but you know, I never saw any violence while I was incarcerated. There’s plenty of conflict because prisons are crowded and prisons are scarce—and scarcity by design is part of what prison and jail is—so there’s always gonna be some conflict, but I didn’t experience violence while I was incarcerated and that was a big difference between what we currently think about.
SW: Is there anything you miss from that time of your life?
PK: There are people I miss. There are people depicted in the book that are still in my life in some way and I stay in touch with them and those friendships are really important to me. There’s nothing I miss about the experience of being incarcerated but there are definitely people I think about and I’m like, I wonder how she’s doing. Not every single person in the book is in touch and obviously I didn’t write about every single person I encountered in the book because obviously I was incarcerated with hundreds and hundreds of women.
SW: Is there something specific you’re hoping people in Bend will walk away with from the Author! Author! presentation?
PK: I just hope that people come away and recognize that our current situation really isn’t serving them well and that’s why its well worth it for them to speak up or take action in some way to get some improvement in Oregon’s system and obviously in the national system as well.
SW: Tell me something you’re excited about in the third season of “Orange is the New Black.”
PK: I’m really excited about the third season, there’s all kinds of great stuff. Great character development with the folks that people are already in love with and some new characters as well. The thing I’m personally most excited about is there’s a story line in the new season, which reveals something about the American criminal justice system many people don’t even know about, they’ve never heard of it. So I’m excited about that.
SW: Do you have a favorite new character?
PK: Everybody asks that, it’s so hard to pick. I can’t pick. There’s just too many. It’s an embarrassment of riches.
SW: If you could choose a prison bunkmate who would you pick?
PK: You want somebody who’s got a lot of skills. Let me think about this for a minute. Who would be good, who would be good...
SW: Maybe this question is easier. Is there a prison in America that, if you had to go back, wouldn’t be as bad?
PK: I’m teaching writing right now at a men’s medium security [prison] in Ohio, which does more rehabilitation than any prison I’ve ever seen. It’s still not a place you’d ever want to spend a night, but still they’re doing some really interesting and innovative things there.
SW: How’s the teaching going?
PK: Great. My students are great. I’m also teaching at one of the women’s prisons in Ohio as well. So I’ve got a men’s class and a women’s class and they’re writing nonfiction and it’s great.
SW: Do you have a favorite prison memoir?
PK: Were reading a huge number of prison memoirs as part of these classes. All the books we’re reading are first person narratives grounded in the criminal justice system. So probably it would be Joe Loya’s The Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell.
SW: Is there a movie or other media portrayal that you think does a good job showing with the criminal justice system is like?
PK: “Orange is the New Black!”
SW: Did you have any other thoughts on that bunkmate question?
PK: I keep on thinking of Queen Latifah, but I wouldn’t want another African-American woman locked up in prison. I never want that.