The public perception and conversation surrounding mass incarceration is much different today than it was when Piper Kerman walked out of FCI Danbury in 2005. Back then, a nation that had chosen to lock up more of its citizens than any other society in history had been missing a critical perspective, she said: the voices of those most deeply impacted.
On the eve of the Season 5 premiere of Orange Is the New Black, Kerman, author of the best-selling memoir that inspired the show and brought national attention to the realities of American prison systems, sat down with The Intercept’s Liliana Segura to talk Prisons, Pop Culture, and Politics.
Aside from what she considered to be time-honored traditions of first-person prison accounts, Kerman believed there had not been much mainstream attention given to voices from the inside, particularly those of women.
“I was very conscious of the fact that the story of an upper-middle class blonde woman being sent to prison would get [the attention of] some people who wouldn’t otherwise read a book about prison,” she said. “I hoped that my own experience might change somebody’s mind about who’s in prison, why they’re there, and what happens to them while they’re there.”
Around the same time that Kerman’s book was published in 2010, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander had also been released. Though coming from a different place, it was a groundbreaking work that finally synthesized what many had long felt but not articulated about systemic racial bias in the criminal justice system, bringing sudden accessibility to a tangible idea.
The narratives of inmates and those close to them continued expanding during Kerman’s collaboration with OITNB creator Jenji Kohan, to whom she credits the show’s diverse range of gender, age, race, and class represented among characters, as well as its provocative storytelling techniques.
“I was sure that a series would be the best possible situation if the goal was for people to become attached to these characters…and to root for them as protagonists instead of antagonists,” said Kerman. Kohan’s decision to inject frequent flashbacks throughout the series does just that, gradually revealing each character’s backstory over time.
As much as I’m looking forward to this weekend’s Season 5 bing-watch, however, the U.S. will continue to incarcerate more people than any other nation long after I turn of Netflix. So what impact does pop culture really have on the politics of our prison system?
A lot, Kerman argues. The show is a jumping-off point whose sharp use of humor, though seemingly making light of serious issues, is actually one of the most fundamentally important tools for survival and recognition of humanity. “It’s hard for people to confront just how brutal many people’s experiences are. They need a point of entry,” she said. “Very few people can just dive in and commit themselves to the harshest realities.”
One of today’s realities is that we’ve already seen ramifications of mass incarceration heightened under the Trump administration, whose Department of Justice wasted no time rolling back steps the Obama DOJ made to include incarcerated people in White House discussions. Under this new administration (though in the past as well), Kerman notes that immigrants, especially, are among the most vulnerable to incarceration, often filling private facilities used for detention purposes.
In terms of getting people involved in these issues, most of the work takes place at the local level, where the majority of sentencing takes place. As for federal government – just like the widespread attention garnered by best-selling books and hit TV shows – Kerman believes the President’s most powerful tool is his hype.
“I think the most important aspect of the federal executive branch is the bully pulpit,” she said. “[Obama] inviting incarcerated people to come into the White House and enter a dialogue about what a more just world looks like is a very important [though symbolic] step.”
As for now, Kerman is using her own platform as an author, activist, and now educator—teaching a nonfiction writing course at both a men’s and women’s prison in Ohio—to continue sharing her experience with mass incarceration in America and empowering other incarcerated people to enter the echo chamber.
Photos by Zane Roessell