Spring on the York College campus

Piper Kerman: Understanding Mass Incarceration and Taking Risks

By by Rachel Harclerode '18
Piper Kerman

Piper Kerman spent one year of her life in prison for a crime she had committed 10 years previously. After receiving encouragement and curious questions from her husband, family, and friends, she decided to write about her experiences in Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison. "Every prison story is a survival story. People are interested in survival stories," she said of her inspiration for publishing the book. The New York Times Bestseller was later adapted into the award-winning Netflix TV show, Orange is the New Black.

After experiencing life behind bars, Kerman realized things about herself, America's mass incarceration system, and the harsh inequalities of prison. In September, she visited York College and spoke about these realizations to a packed audience. She addressed the issue of overcrowded populations in prisons and reminisced about the relationships she formed with other women. Despite the mistakes that brought these women to prison, Kerman believed they deserved a chance to better themselves and have a successful future.

"The consequences of our actions will always come back to us in some way or another," Kerman said. While explaining how her imprisonment made her realize the impact of her actions on her loved ones, she urged the audience to "understand the sanctions you might face." When asked what she hoped students would take away from her lecture, Kerman said, "I think the most important thing I want students to take away from the talk is that you have to be willing to take risks, but you have to think about the impact your actions are going to have on others as well. But risk and sometimes failure are what actually help you grow and succeed."

Kerman recently moved to Ohio to teach at the Marion Correctional Institution and the Ohio Reformatory for Women. While Orange is the New Black is her only publication, she pursued this job in the hopes of giving other inmates the opportunity to do what she did. She wanted others to "have the chance to be creative, the chance to be introspective, the chance to think through the facts of their own life and what the takeaways are from their point of view." She teaches creative writing classes and her students are currently writing their own autobiographies about their experiences in prison. Kerman enjoys giving prisoners this experience because writing is a "moment of liberation in a place that is not free."

Through her autobiography and her appearance at York College, Piper hopes that people will take away a better understanding of America's prison system and the type of people who end up there.

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