The United States has the largest prison and jail population in the world. Female prisoners in the U.S. make up one third of the world’s total female prisoner demographic. Do these numbers slap you in the face? They should. They should take your breath away, and make you question if you want to live in a society that is so comfortable with locking people up.
On Wednesday February 10, Piper Kerman visited Johns Hopkins to kick off this year’s Foreign Affairs Symposium. Her talk was full of statistics and anecdotes that forced us all to seriously consider this institution that our nation has come to so heavily rely on.
During her first night in a federal prison, for a crime she’d committed 10 years prior, Kerman could only think of how lucky she was. She’d just been greeted by a hoard of other female prisoners; most of their sentences made her 15 months feel like a weekend.
Throughout her time, she couldn’t help but question the seriousness of other women’s crimes in comparison to her own, and ask herself what warranted their sentences being so much longer. This was the first of many times she was confronted with the racial and socioeconomic inequality that flows through the veins of our criminal justice system.
Since her release, Kerman hasn’t been able to stay out of the prison system. She currently teaches writing at two male correctional facilities in Ohio, she has twice spoken before Congress against the use of solitary confinement, and her bestselling novel Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Woman’s Prison has garnered national attention for the conditions of United States prisons, not to mention being turned into a hit Netflix series.
Kerman wasn’t here to discuss the beloved characters of her novel, or of the popular Netflix adaptation. She came to discuss the very real dangers facing their real-life counterparts, the 200,000 women currently locked up in United States prisons, and the additional 800,000+ living under the confinement of probation and parole.
Even for those not directly involved in social justice or prison reform, Kerman encourages us all to make a change. She asserts that what this country is lacking most is empathy. Our inability to judge people for the best days, as often as we judge them for their worst, is something we need desperately to get back.
Piper Kerman’s thought-provoking talk was a fantastic start to this spring’s symposium. The next speaker will be Edward Snowden on Wednesday, February 17.