On Tuesday night, Piper Kerman spoke to students in CEMEX Auditorium about prison reform and her 13-month term in a minimum-security women’s prison.
Kerman, the author of the 2010 memoir “Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison” that subsequently inspired the popular Netflix television show “Orange Is the New Black,” opened the event with a personal account of her incarceration, followed by a discussion moderated by author and former prisoner Joe Loya, who corresponded with Kerman during her imprisonment. The night ended with a Q&A session with students and a book signing.
Shortly after graduating from Smith College in 1992, Kerman briefly became involved in an international narcotics operation. She was indicted for her crimes in 1998 but did not begin her incarceration in Danbury, Conn., until 2004 because of legal delays. She fulfilled 13 months of her sentence before being released early for good behavior.
Kerman said a daily routine and her construction job helped her retain a sense of purpose while in prison. She added that she made lifelong friends, which she did not expect to happen.
“There was unexpected kindness from day one,” she recalled.
Kerman said she decided to write her memoir after her release due to overwhelming interest from friends and family about her experiences. She hoped the book would shed light on a system that is often “hidden from the public view.”
“The goal was for people to pick up a book about prison [who] might not otherwise read a book about prison,” she said.
In addition to the personal account of her experiences in prison, Kerman talked at length about major issues in the U.S. prison system, noting skyrocketing incarceration rates in America, faulty legislation and jail sentences that reflect bias depending on socioeconomic status and race. Equally troubling, she added, is the refusal of the prison-industrial complex’s financial leaders to reform the system.
Valerie Ong, program associate for Stern Hall, helped organize the lecture, along with a lunch and dinner with Kerman that students from Stern and the sponsoring organizations attended. Ong said a major goal of the event was to raise awareness of causes like criminal justice and prison reform.
“Prison reform as an issue in general is a huge one that Stanford already does a lot of stuff with,” she said. “But this event is about raising more awareness. Some people have never really been exposed to these issues.”
Ong emphasized that the focus of the event was educational and thus drew more from the book and Piper’s experiences than from the Netflix show. For this reason, Ong and three Stern residential assistants organized intra-dorm book clubs several weeks beforehand. Members of the book clubs read Kerman’s memoir and engaged in discussions about prison life and U.S. criminal justice.
Residential assistant Halle Edwards ’14 led one such book club in Donner and helped organize a dinner with Kerman that several Burbank, Serra and Donner students attended.
“I hope the attendees have had the opportunity to think critically about the prison system in the United States and have been inspired to get involved in either volunteering or advocacy related to the prison system,” she said.