On October 4th at 7:30 p.m. in the Wortmann Ballroom students a-plenty gathered in order to listen to a special guest, Piper Kerman, author of the memoir Orange is the New Black, deliver a lecture on her book detailing her 13-month stay in a federal women’s prison. Kerman’s memoir, which some classes recently read, including Dr. Hoffman’s 334 Criminology course, includes the detail of her life story beginning with her drug smuggling days and ending with her being released from her 13-month sentence.
“It made you realize your actions have consequences,” Katie Corsaro ‘ 12 said, who got to get up close and personal with Piper Kerman when she visited her Criminology class on Tuesday morning. “She was intelligent, well-spoken, and overall interesting.”
Indeed, one of the main points that Kerman’s memoir teaches is that there is no solid definition of a criminal, as she certainly does not fit the usual stereotype of what we consider to be a criminal. Throughout her memoir she notes how many fellow prisoners and guards were a bit shocked by her being in prison since she was a white, middle-class Smith graduate from a successful family full of doctors and lawyers. Some students were also a bit surprised by how she broke the mold of what one would expect an ex-criminal to be like.
“I was surprised because she was a very intelligent person who knew a lot about law and was very professional,” Stella del Castillo Correyero said, an international student from Spain. “She didn’t look like someone who had been in jail.”
Kerman’s memoir goes a long way towards dispelling the common view of prisoners as being violent and selfish individuals. Throughout her stay in the Danbury, Connecticut federal correctional facility she met many women who she formed strong bonds with. Kerman states in the memoir that although there is a myth that one should not make friends in prison, she soon realized that if not for the women she befriended she would not have survived those 13 months. The friends and family she had on the outside, including her future husband Larry who supported her throughout the whole ordeal, also helped her make it through the sentence.
Beyond being simply a memoir; however, Kerman’s book also serves as a strong critique of the American criminal justice system, pointing out various flaws and hypocrisies present in the institution. One of the biggest flaws is the apathy of those involved in the system, such as the guards, who treat prisoners like objects as opposed to individuals and are concerned with getting them in and out of prison as efficiently as possible. The American judicial system is also more concerned with punishment rather than rehabilitation, as the prisoners are completely institutionalized, having little contact with the outside world, making it hard for them to deal with the real world upon release. Kerman notes in the memoir that lack of rehabilitation programs is why many of her fellow inmates are repeat offenders.
Offering a perspective of life in prison from the point of view of someone who could easily have been a Roanoke College graduate, Orange is the New Black is a fascinating story and a provocative study of American incarceration.