‘Orange is the New Black’ author Piper Kerman talks about prison reform, sexuality and being a ‘Smithie’ in return to alma mater



Last modified: Friday, October 10, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — Many Smith College alumnae have made names for themselves and then returned to address students or serve as commencement speakers.

Piper Kerman, who graduated in 1992, knows that she would not be back at the college if it wasn’t for her 13-month stint in a women’s federal prison.

“It’s not exactly why I expected to return to Smith, notably,” Kerman said at Neilson Library before speaking in front of more than 1,000 people, mostly students, at John M. Greene Hall Thursday afternoon.

Kerman’s 2010 memoir, “Orange is the New Black,” about going to prison for transporting a suitcase containing drug money, became an Emmy Award-winning Netflix series that debuted in 2013. She has used her fame since then to be an advocate for the incarcerated and prison reform.

Kerman visited UMass Wednesday night before her appearance at Smith, where she answered questions, first from book critic and alumna Bethanne Patrick, and then from students. She reminisced about her time at Smith and in Northampton after graduation, discussed the ways the show departs from her memoir, and spoke about the failings of the country’s prison system.

“I’m a product of two women’s institutions,” she said, eliciting laughter from the crowd.

“There’s no doubt the fact that I went to Smith prepared me for prison,” Kerman said. For some women who were incarcerated, “the intensity of the community of women was overwhelming for them, whereas I was like a fish to water in many ways.”

She also said that while she can imagine the trajectory her life would have taken if she had not been incarcerated, she cannot imagine it without Smith College.

“The story really begins after I left through the Grecourt Gates,” she said, referring to the iconic gates on the campus that face downtown. “It’s amazing to be back in Northampton, back in the Valley.”

After graduating in 1992, Kerman lived and worked downtown and fell for a glamorous woman who sold heroin for a South African drug lord. Shortly before Kerman ended the relationship, she agreed to fly to Europe to deliver a suitcase of drug money. Then in 1998, when she was living in California and thought the crime was ancient history, she was indicted for her involvement in the drug ring. She pleaded guilty and served 13 months of a 15-month sentence at the federal women’s prison in Danbury, Connecticut.

Kerman acknowledged that the main character of Jenji Kohan’s Netflix show is a white, privileged bisexual woman like her, but the similarities in their personalties stop there. At Neilson Library before the event, Kerman told reporters that while she is a consultant on the show, she did not advise actress Taylor Schilling how to play the character.

“She’s not even an impersonation of me,” Kerman said. “I don’t watch the character and say, ‘That’s me!’ because we’re so different.” As a consultant, she answers questions that Kohan and the other writers have about the prison, scenarios in the memoir and other details.

After the event, Jodi Lowe, a first-year student from Connecticut who watches the Netflix show, said she loved seeing and hearing the real Piper Kerman.

“She was great and really funny,” Lowe said. Kerman is “much more friendly, warm and open” than the Netflix show’s character.

Kerman said she wrote the memoir in the hopes that it would introduce “those who wouldn’t pick up a book about the prison system” to the issues she learned about while incarcerated and after.

She said that while women make up about 6 or 7 percent of the prison population in the country, that number has increased by 800 percent in the last 30 years because the country has incarcerated more people for low-level drug offenses, among other things. Kerman said women in prison are far more likely than men to have substance abuse or mental health problems and 80 percent have been abused in some way in their lives.

“If we fail to address these things, we fail to address why women are in prison at all,” Kerman said.

The prison system for both men and women is designed to keep “the most vulnerable” populations down, she said, and people need to pressure their elected representatives in government to reform it.

Kerman also told students they could do something as simple as donating books to a prison book project or volunteer to mentor someone getting out of prison.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.


 

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