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‘Orange is the New Black’ author testifies on prison reform

Piper Kerman, author of the book that inspired the Netflix show Orange Is the New Black, spoke before Congress yesterday on the disturbing realities facing women in prison.

“When I was locked up in Danbury I knew women who were trying to raise their children during brief reunions in the visitors’ room while fending off sexual harassment and struggling with addiction and trying to get a high school education so that when they got out they stood some chance of surviving despite their felony conviction,” Kerman testified.

Women are the fastest growing population in the American criminal legal system and their families and communities are increasingly affected by what happens to them behind bars. But in order to understand and end violence happening behind bars, as Reina has written, we need to think “more rigorously, more systemically, and more kindly about cycles of trauma and abuse.”

Props to Kerman for doing some of this in her testimony. She highlighted the “sexual abuse to prison pipeline,” (there is a staggering, widespread incidence of victimization by sexual abuse or other physical violence before incarceration), the “substance abuse pipeline,” (according to the Sentencing Project, nearly 40% of women in state prison reported using drugs at the time of their offense and nearly one-third reported that they had committed their offense to obtain money to buy drugs), the “mental health pipeline,” (nearly three-quarters of women in state prison in one study had a mental health issue), and though Kerman didn’t call it as such, the “being a woman of color pipeline.”
“One of the things that was so striking to me the very first day that I spent in prison was that so many of the women that I was incarcerated with who I would spend a great deal of time with were serving much harsher sentences than I was,” Kerman testified. “In fact, the only conclusion I could draw was that they had been treated much more harshly by the American criminal justice system…in some cases because of the color of their skin.”
Indeed, this is true in a whole lotta cases. The federal prison system and other criminal legal institutions disproportionately target women of color — with black women and girls being the most vulnerable. One in 18 black women will be incarcerated during her lifetime, as opposed to one in 45 Latinas, and one in 111 white women.
And this is where I find some irony in Kerman’s testimony. Kerman opens her remarks by saying, “the first-hand experiences of people who have survived prison or jail are essential to understanding the changes needed to reform our criminal justice system so that it improves public safety, without resorting to inhumane treatment of people that lasts long beyond the sentences they are given.” While every prison story is indeed a survival story, her testimony being the only female testimony on women inmates highlights ‘the danger of the single story‘ – particularly when that single story does not capture the race, health, class, gender, and other factors that compound the violence women typically face from the prison system.
To Kerman’s credit, she has acknowledged this elsewhere and pointed to the reception of her particular story as a question of whose story gets valued — by Netflix, by the media, by mainstream consumers, and now by Congress. Additional props for wrapping her testimony by alluding (not as strongly as I would have liked but this is a Homeland Security hearing *yawn*) to the case for prison abolition: Before we even think about where women should be incarcerated, we should consider IF they should be incarcerated.
Watch the hearing and read Kerman’s testimony here.
Header Image Credit: Attn.

Mahroh Jahangiri is the former Executive Director of Know Your IX, a national survivor- and youth-led organization working to end gender violence in schools. She cares about the ways in which American militarization, racism, and sexual violence impact communities of color transnationally. You can say hi to her at @mahrohj.

Mahroh Jahangiri is the former Executive Director of Know Your IX, a national survivor- and youth-led organization working to end gender violence in schools.

Read more about Mahroh

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