Piper Kerman, author of the bestselling memoir Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, which inspired the hit Netflix series, was the keynote speaker at the Connecticut ACLU’s Milton and Ethel Sorokin Symposium at the Law School on Monday, April 21.
The event centered on the topic of censorship and the rights of prisoners, a topic on which Kerman has become an expert and activist based on her year spent in Danbury federal prison. Based on her own experiences as well as those of people with whom she has spoken across the country, Kerman stressed the importance of all types of communication – including letters, books, and magazines – on the mental health of an incarcerated prisoner, and she rattled off the many ways prions attempt to censor these materials. She cited the example of a 69-year-old nun who was arrested for political activism with whom Kerman was incarcerated in Danbury, who was constantly harassed by prison guards for receiving letters from supporters across the country in the mail.
Kerman highlighted prison as a means to marginalize those who are incarcerated, citing as an example the relationship between prisoners and correctional officers.
“It’s hard to imagine a less equal relationship between two people than that between prisoner and correctional officer,” she said.
She also touched on the use of solitary confinement in the prison system, citing a study that found that a healthy human being begins to deteriorate after ten days in solitary confinement. However, she was fortunate enough to avoid solitary confinement during her 13 months of incarceration.
Kerman explained that the topic of prison system reform involves too many issues for one person to take on and that she had chosen to focus her activism on the “front-end issues” like sentencing reform, how children are treated in the prison system, and lowering the prison population. Holding people accountable for their actions in the community in which they have done damage rather than removing them from the community by isolating them in prison is one solution she proposed to the issue of prison overcrowding.
Reflecting on her time in prison as seen through her lens as someone who had grown up in a progressive, privileged household, Kerman said she found the prison system to be a “crucible of inequality.”
“Some of the realities of inequality were more abstract to me before I was locked up in prison,” she said. Kerman said that witnessing these inequalities was the most challenging part about her time in prison, but added “the food is also really bad.”