Piper Kerman is the author of “Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison.”
In 2005, I walked out of a federal prison after serving my 13-month sentence for a first-time drug offense I had committed 11 years earlier. Although ecstatic to be released, I carried with me deep concern for the women who were still behind the gate: Women who had been torn from their children. Women who struggled with mental illness. Women sentenced for shockingly long prison terms for offenses very like my own. Women who helped me survive my time as they navigated their own exiles.
All of these women were struggling to survive in a system built by and for men, in prisons operated in a way that was at best neglectful and at worst viciously punitive. What I had witnessed during my time inside was not justice. I wrote about my experience in a memoir titled “Orange Is the New Black.” The title was not only a sarcastic take on orange jumpsuits, but it was also meant as a reminder that women have been the fastest-growing population in U.S. prisons and jails for decades. This is not because we are amidst a female-driven crime spree; it is because we as a nation have used incarceration as a first response when it should be a last resort.
On Friday, the final season of the Netflix series based on the book will premiere in living rooms and on laptops around the world. The show challenged many assumptions about what audiences wanted to watch. And then something more important happened: Assumptions — about who is in prison in this country, how they got there and what happens to women when they return to their communities — were all turned on their head.
Millions have followed the lives of the fictional women locked inside the imaginary Litchfield (N.Y.) prison; they also have learned that the experiences of characters such as Taystee, Suzanne, Gloria, Red, Sophia, Lolly, Pennsatucky and Daya are happening right now to real women, somewhere behind bars.
I hope that, on this final season release day, more Americans can see our dysfunctional criminal-justice system for what it is and take to heart the need to reform it. To do this, we need to first ask why so many women and girls are locked up in the first place. Many of them are victims themselves of senseless policies, double standards and racist applications of the law. Eighty-six percent have survived sexual violence before incarceration, and 60 to 80 percent have experienced other forms of physical abuse. Lack of resources for help with substance abuse and mental illness send many women into jail or prison rather than into the treatments they need.
An astonishing number of women are in city or county jails not because they’ve been convicted but because they are too poor to post bail. Most are mothers of minor children, and a prison sentence punishes those kids as much as it punishes their moms, separating families by hundreds of miles, capricious visitation rules and costly phone calls.
Next, if most incarcerated women are already survivors of significant trauma, then prisons and jails double down on this with harsh punishment. All women in prison are at risk of medical neglect and sexual violence. Recent lawsuits against California and Illinois jails and prisons spotlighted systemic, physically degrading abuse hidden behind the auspices of training exercises for correctional staff. We must confront the fact that law enforcement officers are being taught to conduct this deeply corrupted abuse as part of their jobs.
Almost all prisoners will return to their communities someday. Women often make the journey back uncertain about where they will live, how they’ll reunite with their children and who, if anyone, will employ them. Access to mental health and treatment services is a must but not a given. And probation and parole systems extend punishment beyond prison walls without always aiding public safety. We can’t turn every sentence into a life sentence, robbing women of opportunities once they’ve paid their debts to society.
One of the show’s best-loved characters was Poussey Washington, killed by a correctional officer at the end of Season 4. Today, the show’s creative team is launching the Poussey Washington Fund to help organizations on the front lines make the system fairer, change the violent and dehumanizing conditions, and give women what they really need to reenter society. Some say nothing good can come from binge-watching television, but I disagree. Fans who have been moved by these characters can help change the way the story ends for countless people.
We want to keep women and girls out of prison and jail whenever possible — while holding them accountable for their mistakes in ways that build community rather than shred it.
And we want women returning from those dehumanizing places to have a fair chance at a new life.
“Orange Is the New Black” is coming to an end; it’s long past time to end the failed policies and bad laws that made the series possible.