Prison Watch: Students Have Plenty of Questions for "Orange is the New Black" Author

alexandriapech.pngJust how author Piper Kerman feels about the way the hugely successful Netflix series re-interpreted her prison memoir "Orange is the New Black" will be a big question for the author when she takes the stage at SSU at 7 p.m. on Nov. 18 in the Student Center ballroom.

Earlier in the day, Kerman will sit down with the students from SSU's criminal justice and political science departments. They earned the price of admission to the dialogue by reading her book as well as watching the Netflix series.

Until the Netflix series reinterpreted for television the story of an upscale white woman's 15-month prison sentence in a Danbury, Connecticut federal correctional, the book had not reached the upper ranks of the bestseller list. But now both the book and the Netflix series are a raging success and Kerman has smartly used it as a platform to advocate for reform for women in prison.

Most students agreed the Netflix series was "over the top" in use of sexual dynamics between women, racial stereotypes, and eccentric characters to drive the plot for a television audience.

In a recent discussion preparing for the Monday dialogue, the criminal justice and political science students explored some potential areas for questions with Criminology and Criminal Justice Studies professors Barbara Bloom and Eric Williams. Bloom is a national expert on gender-responsive policies and practices for criminal justice-involved women and girls and Williams has expertise in prison management.

They included power dynamics with correctional officers, women's relationships in prison, differences between male and female prisons and sentencing policies. One of the biggest concerns were stereotypes, whether they are based on gender or race or the ways law enforcement professionals are portrayed.

One student who came to the criminal justice studies program has a family with long-time careers in law enforcement. She wondered aloud whether the author supported the way the guards were negatively portrayed as either "Dads" to the female inmates or sexual predators.

luketesluk.jpgLuke Tesluk, political science major, wonders about how poverty worked to drive women to prison. Every sentence is a story, says the tagline of the book, and he wonders, if "there were any common experiences that these women shared that eventually led them to their incarceration?" He will also ask Kerman about the aftermath of Kerman's sentence and her adjustment to life outside of prison.

"Prison is a hard thing to talk about" says Alexandria Pech, whose own father was in prison for 20 years. A McNair scholar at SSU, she is currently involved in a research project guided by Bloom to understand how to foster resilience in children of incarcerated parents.

"But we have to continue to keep the conversation going in order to change policies that affect over two million children and families that are dealing with incarceration of a loved one," she says.

The low visibility of female inmates and of women's prisons has been the focus of Professor Barbara Bloom's work for years as she has gained national attention on ideas and policies for alternative approaches to incarceration.

She says that the challenges that women who have been incarcerated face are different than their male counterparts and often involve issues such as reunification with children, finding safe and affordable housing, and access to services (e.g., health, mental health, drug treatment, vocational training) that are specific to their needs.

"When people say prison, they always mean men's prison," she says. But more women every year are being sent to prison in a troubling rise in incarceration that surpasses men. Bloom says 7% of the nation's prison population are women and yet the policies are the same as for male prisoners.

Bloom remembers that allowing pregnant women to be transported to hospitals to give birth without being shackled is only a recent change in prison policy.

-Jean Wasp

TOP, Alexandria Pech will have an opportunity to discuss the book and TV series "Orange is the New Black" with author Piper Kerman in a special dialogue with the author and other criminal justice studies students. Pech is conducting her own research on understanding how to foster resilience in children of incarcerated parents. (Photo by Sandy Destiny)

MIDDLE, Luke Tesluk, political science major, wonders about the impact of poverty on women's lives.

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