Dinner and a Talk with Piper Kerman

“Keep your mouth shut and your eyes open.” Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black, gave us this advice in the case that we were ever jailed. However, that’s exactly what I did for the entire three hours I spent in her vicinity. At 5 o’clock pm on Wednesday, October 1st, I arrived at the Mullins center with other members of my RAP, Careers in Law. We joined our professor, Diane Curtis, in the elevator and shared our excitement to meet Piper.

We found our name tags and went to our assigned seats. I conversed with the others at my table until we were instructed to go grab some food from the buffet prepared for us. At 5:20, I had my first Piper sighting. She was seated at the front of the room at Table #1 with members of the UMass community such as Professor David Fleming, Student Body President Vinayak Rao, and State Representative Ellen Story.

The first speaker of the night was Ellen Story. She began her speech by stating that, “if [her] university had a common read, it would have helped [her] so much!” She loved the idea of an entire class presumably having at least one thing in common, one thing we could talk about inside and outside the classroom.

“This book was just wonderful”, Ms. Story stated with an emphasis on the “wonderful”. She turned to Piper and explained to her how powerful the themes of Orange is the New Black are and they become increasingly powerful with the knowledge of this book’s non-fiction status. Mrs. Story then began to reveal some statistics she found interesting in regards to the prison system.

  • 1,500 women are incarcerated a day in Massachusetts

  • 75% or ¾ of those women are mothers

“Wow!” Piper whispered whilst nodding. These surprising statistics lead to a silence in the room. “Anyway, I’m hoping I can convince [Piper] to come to the State House and talk to some women legislators.” To this, Piper nodded and mouthed, “Oh yes!”

Next up to the podium was Professor of English, David Fleming. Professor Fleming was the co-chair of the Common Read Committee this year alongside Anjali Cadena. Professor Fleming stated that the common read program and Orange is the New Black itself is “not just about reading, but an opening to dialogue.”

This year’s Common Read essay prompt was as follows:

“Piper Kerman’s story is a window into a world most readers have never seen before. With each person she meets, Piper struggles with critical issues for understanding what it means to be a part of her new community: race, gender, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, power, and privilege. This book is an invitation to reflect on how everyone’s stories intersect but are also shaped and informed by those larger social issues, too. How does Piper’s experience illuminate the opportunities and challenges ahead, as you begin to live and work with people from different cultures and experiences at UMass Amherst?”

The winner of the essay contest, Dhanya Kumar, a biology major here at UMass, read to us the last two paragraphs of her entry. She told us that we should “take proactive action in cases of injustice like Piper did”. She reminded the students in the audience that we are “not only current students, but we’re also future alumni”. So, what we do now in regards to the fight for social justice, is just as important as what we do when we leave UMass.

Professor Diane Curtis spoke to us about her love of Orange is the New Black and its ability to mix “[her] law experience with [her] Friday night Netflix binge watching”.

At 6:16, Piper’s press secretary walked in to the dinner and away Piper went with the wave of a hand.

From the dinner, my classmates and I, drove to the Campus Center. There, we were escorted into a room with everyone who attended the dinner and promised front row seats (score!).

Around 7:30, we entered the auditorium and waited for Piper to arrive. Followed shortly by our arrival, Piper walked through the door to a roar of applause.

“Thank you! It’s so great to be back in my home state of Massachusetts!”

Piper dove into her past with us with the aid of a Powerpoint. She talked to us about Smith College, where she received her bachelor’s degree. “The first institution for women in which I was held,” she joked.

Piper, or #11187-424 as she was referred to in prison, told us how reliant she was on the kindness of strangers during her sentence. When she arrived, the other inmates immediately began asking her what she needed. “Do you need toothpaste? Shower shoes? Coffee?”

She spoke to us about the differences in prisons. She explained that the last two months of her sentence were the worst for her because of the facility where she was placed. “We were locked away on the 12th floor and forgotten.”

She also gave us some chilling statistics about women and black men and women in prison.

  • 800%: - percentage increase in the incarceration of women in the last 30 years vs. the 400% increase in men incarcerated in the last 30 years

  • in 1980, 500,000 women were incarcerated

  • Today, 2.4 million women are

  • 200,000 women held in United States prisons alone (⅔ for non-violent crimes)

  • 1.3 million women under criminal justice supervision have dependent children (these children are 5x more likely to go into foster care)

  • Black men and women are 4x more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than white men and women (“White people smoke just as much!!” Piper stated.)

And for fans of the show, don’t worry! That was mentioned as well! In fact, we watched a clip from Season 1, Episode 1. Piper explained that this clip was almost verbatim from the book for which she was incredibly grateful. She really appreciated that the show, though it varies greatly from the book, remains a background plot similar to the heart of the book.

“After all”, she reminded us, “when you’re locked up, the only legitimate form of escape, is the escape through books.”

(Please remember to donate to the Prison Book Project!)

Sources: 1

Photo Sources: 1, 2, 3, Olivia Laramie