Piper Kerman and Justice Reform

On Friday, September 21, Piper Kerman, acclaimed author and activist, spoke to the Dickinson community. Ms. Kerman used the platform of the Poitras-Gleim Lecture, an annual event celebrating interdisciplinary exploration into societal problems, to discuss the complex issue of justice reform. Justice reform, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, attempts “to reform the criminal justice and immigration enforcement systems so they operate fairly and equitably; to ensure the dignity and humanity of those interacting with these systems; and to reduce the population of jailed, detained, and incarcerated juveniles and adults in the United States.” Ms. Kerman specifically focused on the ways that gender impacts incarcerated persons’ experiences.

As depicted in her hit Netflix series and popular memoir Orange is the New Black, Ms. Kerman spent 13 months incarcerated in the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut. Drawing from her experiences, she participated in a nuanced overview of the many flaws of America’s mass incarceration problem As Ms. Kerman discussed, she is an unlikely victim of our country’s ineffective criminal justice policies.  As a white, educated, financially stable woman, she is not representative of the demographic discriminations that are embedded in our correctional systems.

As Ms. Kerman put it, our justice system is “built by and designed for men.” In many ways, therefore, it fails to meet the meet the needs of its female-identifying inmates. Here is a brief overview of some of the problems that Ms. Kerman outlined.

  • Motherhood: As reported by the U.S. Department of Justice, the population of incarcerated parents in state and federal facilities jumped almost 80% between 1991 and 2007. 80% of women incarcerated in jails have children, and many of them were their child’s primary caretaker. Parental incarceration leads to a host of problems for children, from lower educational achievement to mental health difficulties. Visitation can prove difficult for families who lack the resources to travel.
  • Past Trauma: The majority of incarcerated women have been victims of sexual or physical violence. As Mother Jones reports, “Standard correctional procedures such as shackling, full body strip searches, and supervision by male staffers as women shower, dress, or use the bathroom can lead to retraumatization.” Ms. Kerman also pointed out the higher rates of sexual abuse that women face while incarcerated.
  • Healthcare: Women have some specific health needs that are easy to look over in correctional settings. Gynecological services, for instance, have consistently been found “inadequate and inappropriate” according to the National Commission on Correctional Health Care. Incarcerated women also struggle disproportionately with mental health.

These problems have been exacerbated by the skyrocketing population of women in prisons. As the Prison Policy Initiative reports, “women have become the fastest-growing segment of the incarcerated population.” Their findings are illustrated in the graph below.


Want to learn more and get involved? Ms. Kerman’s website points to three organizations that are making strides in justice reform:

On campus, I am a coordinator for the CS3 Comm Serv program Prison Inmate Tutoring (PIT). PIT arranges for student volunteers to tutor inmates working towards their GED. As a coordinator of that program, I encourage you to email pit@dickinson.edu for more information.

Written by Alette Kligman ’20, WGRC student worker