News: Featured Stories

October 6, 2014

Throngs Attend 'Orange is the New Black' Event


  • Lowell
Piper Kerman Dishes on Jail Time, Prison Reform

If anyone can get people excited about the not-so-sexy topic of prison reform, it’s Piper Kerman.

Years after she carried a suitcase full of drug money from Chicago to Brussels for her then-lover, Kerman spent a year locked up at the Federal Correctional Facility in Danbury, Conn. Her recollections of her experiences as a prisoner have earned worldwide audiences through her New York Times bestselling memoir “Orange is the New Black” and a blockbuster Netflix adaptation.

More than 500 people showed up at University Crossing on a rainy Tuesday night to hear her speak. Alumni, students, faculty, staff, Girl Scouts, teachers and others began lining up at 4 p.m. for the 6:30 p.m. free event.

In a frank discussion about her unlikely incarceration—she was raised in a middle-class family in Brookline and graduated from Smith College—Kerman described the horror of being arrested 10 years after her infraction.

“After graduation from Smith—the first women’s institution in which I was held—I was sort of unfocused, hanging around Northampton, working in a brewery,” she said.

There, she met “Nora,” whom she describes as “exciting, worldly and sophisticated” and, unfortunately, involved in the business of narcotics.

Kerman joined her lover on exotic trips around the globe, to Bali, Zurich and Paris— all the while assuring herself that she hadn’t personally crossed any ethical lines. That changed when Kerman agreed to carry the suitcase full of cash—money she knew came from drugs.

“About a month after I crossed that line, I ended the relationship—some sort of self-preservation instinct kicked in—and I moved to California, got a job and got my life on track,” she said.

She admits that the incident never left her, despite the passing decade: “It was like I’d put it into a lock box, at the back of my sock drawer—you know, the place where we all hide things we’ve done that we’re not proud of.”

History caught up to her when the bigger players in her ex-lover’s crime organization were arrested and offered up other participants, big and small.

Two U.S. Customs officers knocked on the door of the New York City apartment she shared with boyfriend (and now husband) Larry Smith, and the past came crashing out of the lock box.

While Kerman said she is “eternally grateful” that she had the means to hire a good attorney (she said 80 percent of defendants can’t afford one) and for his skill in negotiating a reasonable sentence, she ignored his advice not to make friends inside.

“My ‘lone wolf’ tendencies were what got me into trouble to begin with, and opening myself up to relationships with my fellow inmates was key to helping me discover my best self,” she said.

Kerman’s book offers a look into some of the women she became close to— like Star, who created a handmade bunk bed nametag for her, and Pom Pom, who sought information from corrections officers about her wayward mother, who preceded her in the same prison.

During her talk, Kerman shifted from detailing her own experience to addressing the critical faults in the country’s corrections system, which she has since spent the last few years challenging through nationwide speeches and advocacy work.

Gender and Race in Corrections

Kerman cited an 800 percent increase in incarceration of women in the past 30 years, and noted that two-thirds of them are mothers.

“When a dad goes to prison, the effect on kids is awful. When a mom goes to prison, the effect on kids is seismic,” she said.

Race and Class Distinction

Kerman asserted that “who gets locked up does not correlate to who does the crime.”

“If, tonight, a 19-year-old African-American male and a white male are both arrested for selling pot, the African-American male is far more likely to receive a harsher sentence than his white counterpart,” she said.

The current system simply is not working, Kerman said.

“The U.S. has the biggest and most expensive prison system in the world, but there is no evidence that the ‘War on Drugs’ is being won,” she said. “Today, drugs are more accessible and more potent than they were 30 years ago,”

Kerman recommends that the country “front-load” strategies to address the problem, especially through increased investment in public education.

“Educated people are far less likely to be incarcerated—I am the exception to this rule,” she said.

Kerman’s own reform efforts include serving on the board of the Women’s Prison Association, and speaking to students and groups like the American Correctional Association’s Disproportionate Minority Confinement Task Force, federal probation officers, public defenders, justice reform advocates and formerly and currently incarcerated people.

“We have a racially biased system that over-punishes, fails to rehabilitate and doesn’t make us safer,” she said.

Kerman was the second in a series of notable authors to visit and speak at UMass Lowell’s new student engagement center, University Crossing.