After graduating with a theater degree from an elite women's college in the early 1990s, Piper Kerman was looking for excitement. She found it in a girlfriend who took her to exotic locales across the globe—and just happened to smuggle drugs. When Kerman's relatively minor role in those illicit transactions caught up with her a decade later, she found herself facing prison time.
In the years since that transformative experience, Kerman has published her New York Times Best Selling memoir Orange is the New Black, has seen that book turn into a wildly popular Netflix original series—with season three coming out June 12, and has filled her schedule with speaking gigs and other appearance aimed at raising awareness of the injustices faced by people both in prison and post-incarceration.
Kerman talked to the Source from the Asheville, N.C., airport, en route to a breakfast in Detroit where she hoped to encourage Michigan employers to hire people with felony convictions like herself. She speaks in Bend as part of the Deschutes Library's Author! Author! series May 29.
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: I was so incredibly fortunate. I had this strong network of family and friends and former employers, and a guy that I knew ran a company and hired me. I started work the week after I came home from prison. It is 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... And this is the number one thing that I 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: 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...[it's] 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...
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... 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.
SW: What are the barriers to having more alternatives to incarceration? Are we 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: To bring it back to the book, why did you feel moved to write it?
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.
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.