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Author of 'Orange is the New Black' discusses her incarceration

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Piper Kerman went through a series of transformations before, during, and after her incarceration in a women’s prison on drug trafficking charges.

But it was the relationships she shared with the other women there that finally helped her understand how her decisions more than a decade before were cyclical.

“All those years ago, I was not thinking about how my choices were going to affect the people who were closest to me ... but more importantly, the way that my actions and choices were going to further other people’s substance abuse and addiction and all of the suffering that goes along with that,” she told an audience of hundreds Wednesday at the Stranahan Theater and Great Hall. “Some of the women who extended friendships to me in prison, their lives have been devastated by substance abuse and addiction. It was my connection to those women that helped me to truly comprehend the harm of my own actions, and not the cage that we shared. 

“When we recognize our own power, that’s when we can make amends when we make a bad choice. When I say I left that prison transformed, that’s what I really mean.”

VIDEO: Author Piper Kerman

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Kerman sees her memoir, Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, which was released in 2010 and then adapted into the Emmy award-winning Netflix series that enters its sixth season sometime later this year, as a catalyst to make others think more deeply about those millions of people who are in the country’s prisons and jails. Kerman is a consultant for the show, and said even though the plot lines deviate at times, it weaves in important themes from her book, including race, power, issues of class, and friendship.

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Piper Kerman, author of 'Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison,' talked about her incarceration and the incarceration of women in general in the United States at an event in Toledo Wednesday.

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Now a prison-reform advocate and educator in the prison system, Kerman, 48, spoke Wednesday about her experiences in prison and both the strides and shortcomings of the U.S. prison system. She was the last speaker in the 2017-18 Authors! Authors! installment, events sponsored by The Blade and Buckeye Broadband.

Kerman served 13 months of a 15-month federal sentence on money laundering charges, after a then-girlfriend asked her in 1993 to carry a suitcase full of drug money from Chicago to Brussels. She broke ties with the drug smuggling ring but faced federal charges years later and endured a six-year delay before she was sentenced to serve her time in a women’s prison in Danbury, Conn.

Her transformation in 2004 into inmate #11187-424 gave her insight into the racial injustices that occur during court sentencings, the knowledge that prisons often lack the resources needed to create productive members of society, and the challenges women face in the prison system.

Incarceration rates for women have increased substantially — the number of women locked up in America has risen by 650 percent over the last 40 years, Kerman said.

“I know some of you are racking your brains, oh this female crime wave, how did I miss it? Actually you didn’t. There has not been a female crime wave in the United States,” she said. “Rather, I would suggest to you that the incarceration of women and girls offers us the very ordinary, everyday example of harsh punishment in this country, and how much harsher punishment has grown over the last generation.

“Two-thirds of incarcerated women are there for a drug crime or a property crime, and not for the crimes of violence that most concern us, and that some people think are most appropriate in terms of prison. We’ve chosen to incarcerate women over the last 40 years and often for very, very low-level offenses.” 

Kerman has served 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 about re-entry and employment at the White House, 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.

She and her husband, Larry Smith, whom she writes about in the book and who is depicted in the Netflix series, moved to Columbus about three years ago, where she teaches 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.

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

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