Joan Mead-Matsui

Piper Kerman speaks audience in Scranton, PA

Photo courtesy of Rebecca Greenfield from Marie Claire

Piper Kerman at the Scranton Cultural Center

by Elyse Notarianni 

Piper Kerman, author of “Orange is the New Black,” spoke to a sold-out audience at the Scranton Cultural Center at the Masonic Temple July 19 as a part of the Lackawanna County Library Guest Speaker Series. Her memoir and hit Netflix series detail her experience as an inmate at a minimum security women’s federal correctional facility in Connecticut.

Piper Kerman shares her story

Shortly after her college graduation, Piper Kerman found herself involved in a relationship with an international drug smuggler, Nora Jansen. Upon Jansen’s request, she carried a suitcase of money from Chicago to Brussels in 1993. Officials arrested Kerman in 1998 on charges of money laundering and drug trafficking.  She pled guilty and was sentenced to 15 months in prison, a sentence she did not serve until 2004.

Piper Kerman

Elyse Notarianni holds up her ticket as Kerman speaks about her time in Danbury Prison

In her speech, Kerman pulled attention to the incarceration rate in the United States, one of the highest in the world. Incarceration rates for women alone have increased by 650 percent over the past 30 to 40 years.

“If we are going to have the biggest prison system in the world,” Kerman said, “then I think more Americans should think about that and talk about it.”

Orange is the New Black encourages Americans to do just that. As a nation, we see crime as one entity, and we ignore the individuals involved. While the Netflix series is meant to entertain, it reminds its audience that the depictions on the screen represent reality.

On stage, Piper Kerman is a blonde, upper-middle class white woman in a blue floral dress. When you visualize this woman in an orange jumpsuit or humiliated by a strip search, understanding hits. These issues are real and they are standing right in front of you.

This is the kind of realization the Kerman wants to inspire. Kerman works to educate people who have the power to incite change by speaking to audiences across the country. She talks about inequalities in the justice system based on race, sex, power, and socio-economic status.

Reforming an ineffective system

In the end, Kerman sends a powerful message about reforming an ineffective system. She got to know women whose lives were negatively affected by the nation’s drug trade. Through them, she now understands her part in in the problem. However, she says that instead of serving time in prison, she could have worked directly with these women through service. This would have not only helped her understand the effects of her actions, but would have allowed her to work to correct her mistakes.

To lock up a woman in federal prison costs the government $30,000 a year, whereas rehabilitation programs may cost as low as $18,000 and offers a lower likelihood of the women repeating that offense. Kerman strives to inform people that alternative methods not only exist, but are an improvement over our current system. 

Kerman ended her time in Scranton, Pennsylvania by encouraging her audience to learn about the criminal justice system. She wants people to find ways to get involved— even if that just means donating books to their local prison.

Elyse Notarianni

Elyse Notarianni is a student at American University and a guest blogger at joanmatsuitravelwriter.com.

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