‘OITNB’ Creator on How Pop Culture Can Change the Criminal Justice System

At a recent talk in Brooklyn, best-selling author of "Orange Is the New Black" Piper Kerman speaks out on "how journalism and pop culture combine to create an environment where a policy change is possible, or desirable."

Sep 26 2016, 5:12pm

Image of Piper Kerman by Bill Clark via Getty Images

On an unseasonably temperate day in early September, I meet Piper Kerman on the third floor of the Brooklyn Museum. In an unsexy, institutionally lit auditorium, she's giving a talk with ProPublica reporter Ginger Thompson about the role popular media plays in depicting incarceration and addiction.

Kerman was convicted of a low-level drug offense for carrying a suitcase full of drug money from Chicago to Brussels, in service of a West African drug kingpin known as Alaji. She was incarcerated at a minimum-security prison in Danbury, Connecticut from 2004 to 2005 for the one-time, non-violent crime committed five years prior. The memoir about her experience was adapted into the Netflix series, Orange Is the New Black.

Kerman and Thompson sip water from frosted glasses as they take stabs at the question of whether or not pop culture can do more than simply entertain audiences. Can narratives contained within shows like OITNB actually mobilize social and institutional change in the criminal justice system?

Read more: 'Give Me Pants That Fit!': 'OITNB' Actress Dascha Polanco Gets Real

If the timing of Shane Bauer's groundbreaking investigative piece on serving as a guard at a private prison for Mother Jones or the finale of OITNB's most recent season had any corollary to the recent shutdown of the private prison industry, then yes, the implications are profound. Kerman calls this synergy an "example of how journalism and pop culture combine to create an environment where a policy change is possible, or desirable."

In season 4 of OITNB, the character Pennsatucky confronts the character Nicky about her relapse into heroin use. Nicky is the rare drug-addicted protagonist that "we can get on board with and identity with," Kerman says. She points out that "we don't see very many depictions [in pop culture] of a person who is struggling with substance use disorder or addiction in a way that humanizes them and makes them anything other than either terrifying or pathetic." Nicky's story, says Kerman, marks a departure from the way addicts and drug-sellers are usually depicted as "driven by greed or lust for violence."

Image of Piper Kerman courtesy Brittney Najar for the Brooklyn Museum

In a Narcotics Anonymous meeting held at the prison, Nicky earns a chip for getting sober, but almost immediately, the chip is deemed contraband and confiscated by a corrections officer. Kerman praises the writing of this scene, as "effective in showing us the degree to which the system is set up to punish people—not to heal them or help them get better."

There's a lot of nihilism attached to that white male anti-hero

She moves on to discuss how maternal incarceration is depicted in an episode from season 1 in which the character Poussey says: "These bitches ain't seen their kids since they was babies and them kids get their own babies now...no one is watching over them." Kerman points out that Poussey's dialogue makes the emotional experience of being behind bars "clear in a way that really gets us in the gut instead of in the head."

Unlike the felt impact of OITNB, Kerman came away from watching Breaking Bad with "a sense of futility and hopelessness."

"There's a lot of nihilism attached to that white male anti-hero," Kerman says, arguing that we've grown accustomed to that archetype. If a storyteller is interested in railing against drug prohibition and the tools of social control, she finds it more "interesting" to look at the people—often women and specifically women of color— who've been marginalized by those approaches. Those are the stories that tend to "illuminate the world in a way that that can help us imagine, you know, another way."

While serving time, Kerman maintained an Amazon books wish list that is still online today. The titles range from Ifa Karade's The Handbook of Yoruba Religious Concepts to Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. "It's hard to overstate how important books are to prisoners," she tells me. "It's that legitimate escape. You can't escape the prison, in a legitimate way, but you can escape into the world of a book." (Kerman is an enthusiastic supporter of The Women's Prison Book Project for their work distributing books to women incarcerated in state and federal penitentiaries across the country.)

During her thirteen-month sentence, she read Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family, a work of literary nonfiction about an extended family in the Bronx living in poverty; Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex; and Joe Loya's The Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell, a memoir about the seven years the author spent in a federal prison for bank robbery. Loya and Kerman became pen pals during her sentence, and she now cites him as a major role model in the writing of her book. Today, Kerman teaches nonfiction writing classes at two state prisons in Columbus, Ohio.

Read more: 'The Pain Was So Deep': OITNB Star Diane Guerrero on Her Family's Deportation

It's immediately apparent to anyone in close proximity that Kerman is skilled at redirecting attention from her own story to making a greater point about the barriers of re-entry or the need to strike out mandatory minimum sentencing for low-level, nonviolent offenders. In 2014, she testified before Congress on behalf of eradicating solitary confinement, delivering a moving speech about the psychic effect that it has on women's mental health. Kerman explains that "it's hard to overstate how behind Congress is" in enacting "what constituents want, which is reform." As she puts it, "legislation is an ugly, sausage-making process."

In a book review for Slate titled "What's a Nice Blonde Like Me Doing in Prison?", Jessica Grose contextualizes Kerman's book within a genre of "middle-class transgression." Kerman has often been understood as a trojan horse, or an accessible entry-point for white audiences to come to terms with unjust institutional issues that are, unfortunately, often more familiar to audiences of color. Much of the writing about Kerman, including in her own memoir, fixates on her flaxen-blond hair. By focusing on blond hair, blue eyes, and otherwise distinctly Anglo features, it's as if media-makers are positing: if the criminal justice system failed this woman with this much social privilege, how is it failing women of color, especially from low-income communities?

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Kerman goes to red carpet events and poses in front of step-and-repeat backdrops with the television version of herself, Taylor Schilling. She is also a consultant to the show, who, at earlier stages in the series, played a more significant role in advising how the fictionalized world of Litchfield Prison should look and feel. But her impact is felt more broadly, and in a deeper way, in her writing classes, in Senate hearings, and in the un-filmed, on-the-ground work of amplifying voices of those still constrained by the prison system.