By Susanne Marie Poulette
There’s an old overused proverb that we may have grown tired of hearing, but on Monday evening, September 22, at the Clifton Park-Halfmoon Library, I witnessed the personification of making lemonade when life gives you lemons. I also saw what I’m calling the alchemy of writing—that confluence of heart and mind, tears and joy, life embodied in the written word, and how writing can change one’s life.
Piper Kerman, author of best selling memoir Orange Is The New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison presented her story before a maximum capacity audience. By a show of hands, a number of attendees had read her book, and many more had seen the critically acclaimed Netflix series adaptation. On that evening Kerman’s own voice carried us through the journey that led to her felony conviction and a 13- month sentence in a women’s prison.
As I listened to Piper’s personal narrative, I noticed two pivotal junctures emerge, first the lemons, and then the lemonade.
When Piper Kerman turned herself in at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut, she was looking at a 15- month sentence in a plea deal for a non-violent conviction of money laundering that she had committed ten years earlier. Knowing only what she had read about prison life, she arrived there in great fear of the unknown and of the possibility of experiencing violence. She was “processed in” by intimidating guards and transformed from Piper Kerman to a new, dehumanizing identity, inmate number 11187424. Placed in the general population, she was forced to quickly learn and follow the prison rules, as well as the prisoner rules, “go along to get along” in order to survive the duration of her sentence.
A Smith College graduate, Piper Kerman writes a moving account of her prison experience, of taking responsibility for her actions and paying the consequences. In the process, she also identifies and vividly articulates the need for reform of our criminal justice system. She explained the reason for writing her memoir: so that those who would not otherwise read a book about life in prison can learn about the people who become incarcerated. Who are they? What led them there? What are the intentionally well-hidden realities of life in prison? Piper’s memoir and the Netflix series teach us that many prisoners today are women, and many are mothers of minor children. She described a startling statistic. There has been an 800 % increase in women’s incarceration in the last 30 years, nearly twice the rate of increase in male prisoners. Close to 85% of the women incarcerated in New York State are there for non-violent crimes, with wide disparity in sentence lengths along socioeconomic and racial lines.
Piper discussed several themes about life in a women’s prison including: the inequities of race and class; motherhood and pregnancy behind bars; gender power and predominance of male guards; and friendship and empathy among the prisoners. She spoke with tenderness in describing the impact of her fellow prisoners’ friendship and empathy. Among their kindnesses was the phenomenon of their “welcome wagon” extended to new prisoners by offering essentials such as toothpaste or soap; items that are not provided and must be earned by inmates. They gave advice and comforting words that each day would be a little bit better. One woman who loved to draw made each new prisoner a special name tag to post as required on inmates’ bunks. Kerman displayed a slide photo of the name tag made especially for her, and explained how those kindnesses touched her.
“…I believe that empathy, or lack of empathy lies at the heart of every crime, and that is certainly true for my own crime. Back in 1992, 1993, I was not thinking about the impact my actions would have on other people. I wasn’t thinking all that seriously about the consequences for myself, …or the harm that I would bring my family, and frankly, the fact that my actions would be furthering other people’s substance abuse and addictions…My empathy was not working well. So, I make this point because my friendships with the women that I met in prison, many of them,… their lives have been terribly impacted by substance abuse and addiction…lives and health devastated… relationships with their children frayed…It was my friendships with those women that made me truly comprehend the harm of my own actions. And for that I am deeply, deeply grateful, not just for their friendship and kindness and that sort of shared survival, but for that incredibly important recognition of the impact of my own actions, and why our actions matter so much, even though the results may be far away from us.”
It seems to me that Piper Kerman’s lemonade is more than the closure of that painful chapter of her life, more than the success of her best selling book and the Netflix series, and more than the celebrity it has brought her. She transcends an unfortunate life-changing experience through writing. I suggest that her real lemonade is her public platform for criminal justice reform and her potential to effect changes in the lives of prisoners during and after incarceration, enacting “common sense sentencing,” and reducing recidivism.
Piper closed her presentation by telling what she wants for everyone in the prison system:
“To be judged not only for their worst day and their worst choice, but also for their best days and their best choices.”
To learn more about Piper Kerman and her advocacy for criminal justice reform:
Piper’s website lists her reform activities: http://piperkerman.com/
She 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. View the video at: http://piperkerman.com/videos
Justice Reform Organizations: http://piperkerman.com/justice-reform/justice-reform-organizations
WPA’s 2nd Chances Campaign, to view a video series of personal second chance stories: http://2ndchancescampaign.org/