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'Orange is the New Black' author a passionate advocate for prison reform

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    Piper Kerman

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    Taylor Schilling in a scene from “Orange is the New Black.”

    NETFLIX

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If You Go

What: Authors! Authors! with Piper Kerman

When: Doors open 6 p.m.; event starts at 7 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Stranahan Theater & Great Hall, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd.

Tickets: eventbrite.com or any Toledo Lucas County Public Library location

Information: 419-259-5200

Phone: 419-214-1640

On March 4, 2005, Piper Kerman was released from a federal prison in Chicago.

On her re-entry to the outside world, the now best-selling author was offered a pair of men’s jeans and a green polo shirt, a cheap pair of shoes, a thin windbreaker to fend off the chilly winter air of Chicago, and $28.

But she had a fiance who came to Chicago from New York to pick her up, a job waiting from a friend, and a family preparing for her return.

It doesn’t always happen. In fact, it usually doesn’t happen. Ms. Kerman considers herself lucky.

“We know what it takes to get people home safely and successfully; it takes safe housing, access to work at a living wage, access to health care, and in some cases mental health care and substance abuse care,” she said during an interview with The Blade from her home in Columbus.

“The most important thing is you have to have access to a caring community, and it might be your blood family or a faith community, but if people have been really cut off from the outside world during their incarceration, those bonds are really difficult to foster right from the jump.”

Ms. Kerman, 48, is the author of Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, which was adapted into the award-winning Netflix series entering its sixth season and for which she is a consultant.

Now a prison reform advocate and educator, Ms. Kerman will talk about her experiences in prison and both the strides and shortcomings of the U.S. prison system at the next Authors! Authors! installment at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Authors! Authors! is an annual lecture series sponsored by The Blade and Buckeye Broadband.

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Piper Kerman

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In 2004 and 2005, Ms. Kerman served 13 months of a 15-month federal sentence on money laundering charges after a then-girlfriend asked her to carry a suitcase full of drug money from Chicago to Brussels, Belgium. Knowing she crossed a line, she broke ties with the woman and the drug smuggling ring, but a couple of years later, the feds came knocking.

She sees her book, which was released in 2010, as a vehicle for readers to come away with a more accurate depiction of people incarcerated in the country’s prisons and a way to show the lack of rehabilitative programs before, during, and after an individual’s stint in prison.

“I really hoped that if I told the story the right way and did succeed at drawing the reader in to that day-to-day and their survival, that perhaps the reader might be able to imagine themselves in my shoes or the shoes of one of the other women in the book,” Ms. Kerman said. “It’s very important for our elected officials to hear loud and clear that we want smart-on-crime policies. We don’t simply want brainless tough-on-crime policies, because we know that tough-on-crime hasn’t worked.

“We’ve done that. We have created the biggest prison population in human history, and it hasn’t really worked for us.”

FBI data show that crime decreased by 48 percent between 1993 and 2016, according to a report by the Pew Research Center. Yet incarceration rates have increased substantially. The number of women locked up in America — women account for about 7 percent of the nation’s prison population — has risen by 650 percent in the last 40 years, Ms. Kerman said.

According to the Sentencing Project in Washington, the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 700 percent between 1980 and 2014, from 26,378 in 1980 to 222,061 in 2014. The number of females sentenced to more than one year in state or federal prison increased by 500 individuals from 2015 to 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Ms. Kerman has been active in the promotion of criminal justice reform, serving on the board of directors of the Women’s Prison Association and the advisory boards of the PEN America Writing For Justice Fellowship, InsideOUT Writers, Healing Broken Circles, and JustLeadershipUSA.

She has also spoken at the White House about re-entry and employment and has been called as a witness by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights to testify on solitary confinement and women prisoners and by the U.S. Senate Governmental Affairs and Homeland Security Committee to testify about the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

For the last three years, she has been teaching narrative writing classes in the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, Ohio, and the Marion Correctional Institution, a medium-security facility for men in Marion, Ohio, as an affiliate professor with Otterbein University.

The challenges of being a woman in prison are many, including that prisons are built with men in mind, Ms. Kerman said.

They are built to be traumatizing, usually with sub-par rehabilitation programs, she believes, without consideration that women who end up in prison have already been subjected to substance abuse, mental health issues, or sexual or physical violence.

“It’s very important to know that before we choose to lock up a woman or young girl ... it is almost certain that she has been a victim of crime herself,” she said. “And the really problematic thing about most jails and women’s prisons is we have women who are basically survivors of significant trauma, and we put them into situations that are very traumatizing as well. And that’s how we build our prisons and jails.”

Many might be familiar with the TV adaptation of Ms. Kerman’s book. The made-for-TV storylines are at times a vast departure: Ms. Kerman is, in fact, still married to then-fiance Larry Smith, who in Season 3 of the series leaves her for her best friend. Food mogul Martha Stewart was indeed sentenced to prison that same year but was not assigned to the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Conn., where Ms. Kerman served most of her sentence.

In the show, a southern chef joins the other women in prison. (Interesting fact: Ms. Kerman and Ms. Stewart were released from prison on the same day).

And Ms. Kerman’s then-girlfriend who pulled her into the drug ring all those years before did not serve her federal sentence alongside Ms. Kerman at Danbury as depicted in the show, although their lives did cross when Ms. Kerman was transferred to the federal prison in Chicago at the end of her prison term to testify against a co-defendant in the case.

Those plotlines are OK with Ms. Kerman, who said the most important social and character issues she wished to convey are key components of the Netflix series.

“The themes from the book are completely present in the show, and that’s what’s important to me. Those are themes around race and class and power and gender and friendship and empathy,” she said.

Contact Roberta Gedert at rgedert@theblade.com, 419-724-6075, or on Twitter @RoGedert.

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