Piper Kerman’s memoir Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison made the Brookline native a best-selling author—and the inspiration for the hit Netflix show, premiering its third season in June. Now a champion for prison reform, she receives the Humanist Heroine Award from the Harvard Humanist Community on March 31.
What’s the humanist impact of your book? Well, I think that we tend not to think about the 2.4 million people who fill up our prisons and jails as people. We tend to think of other words, like felons and criminals and convicts and lots of other really harsh words, but we do tend to forget about the humanity of each and every one of those people.
When did you realize you wanted to write about your experience? It was after I came home. People were just so fascinated by hearing every single detail about prison life if I was willing to describe it.
You’re still in touch with women you met in prison. Did they respond positively to the book? Yes, the response has been very positive. I’m really grateful, really enthusiastic. The response to the show is generally enthusiastic too. Obviously, it’s a much bigger departure for the women who have actually lived through the events depicted in the book. I think that for some women the humor in the show is hard for them to reconcile with their own experiences because of course prison is really traumatic—it’s intended to be.
How do you feel when the TV plotlines differ from your experiences? What’s definitely most important to me is simply that the audience is engaged with all these different female protagonists as protagonists, and sort of the recognition that every single person in prison or jail sort of is the hero of their own story even though they may be making really big mistakes, as sort of every protagonist or hero does. Because I think that’s a really new way of looking at people who we typically paint as villains.
What do you think the state of prison reform is at this point in time? I think there’s a lot of change going on, which is fantastic, and I think the last 10 years has been building momentum for more change. But I think one of the most difficult changes is legislative change, and that is really what is needed—and fewer people in prison in the first place, which is, to me, the name of the game. Because once we’ve chosen to lock somebody up, it’s really hard for most people to come back from confinement. … To me, there’s a law of diminishing return… Once someone’s incarcerated for more than 10 years, it’s incredibly difficult for them to reenter society successfully. You can imagine if you were sort of removed from a community for 10 years, it would be really hard to go back. So we have to ask whether those punishments are really accomplishing what we expect them to.
Exactly. And also to have sentencing or to have interventions that really addressed the root of their involvement in crime. Women are great examples. The vast majority of women don’t commit violent offenses, and most women’s offenses are driven by substance abuse, by addiction, or by mental health problems. There’s a huge percentage of women in prisons who are there, at least in part, because they are mentally ill. The fundamental truth is that prisons and jails don’t solve problems like substance abuse or don’t solve problems like mental health problems, and in fact, when it comes to mental health, incarceration tends to make that worse.