Piper's List: 'Orange Is the New Black' Author Offers Ways to Support Prison Reform

Author Piper Kerman '92 spoke to an audience of more than 1,000 at Smith on October 2 as fellow alumna Bethanne Patrick '85 moderated. Photo by Carmen Pullella '16.

“I’m the product of two women’s institutions,” Piper Kerman ’92 told an audience in John M. Greene Hall on Thursday: Smith and federal prison.

For the next two hours, Kerman, author of the memoir Orange Is the New Black, explored the differences and similarities between those two “communities of women” at a talk for the Smith community. Fellow alumna Bethanne Patrick ’85 was the moderator.

“I can easily imagine what my life would have been like if I hadn’t gone to prison,” said Kerman, now 45, whose book has been adapted to become a hit Netflix series. “But I can’t imagine my life without my Smith education.”

When she began serving a 15-month sentence in 1998 for carrying a suitcase full of drug money, Kerman said she adjusted quickly to the “intensity of the community of women” inmates.

“There’s no doubt the fact that I went to Smith prepared me,” Kerman said.

But in contrast to Smith, the federal prison in Danbury, Conn., where Kerman served her time, provided no education or enlightenment for the women inside, she said.

The U.S. prison system is a model of “pure punishment” Kerman said, noting that most women are incarcerated for non-violent offenses. Although women make up only about 7 percent of the country’s prison population, Kerman said the rate of incarceration for women has grown by 800 percent in the last 30 years due to stricter sentencing laws in many states for minor offenses.

Since the success of the Netflix series based on her book, Kerman has become an advocate for reforming the U.S. prison system.

In response to questions from students, here are four things she recommended people can do to support women in prison:

  1. Donate books to a prison. “Prisoners are voracious readers,” Kerman said, “and there is really no education in prison.”
  2. Volunteer time to prisoner support programs. “There is a prison or jail in almost every community in the country,” Kerman noted.
  3. Mentor someone who is coming out of prison, family members on the outside or a young person who might be at risk for becoming involved in crime.
  4. Lobby elected officials to change sentencing laws and reduce the number of people being incarcerated. “Tell them you want more sensible public safety policies,” Kerman said.