So, I haven’t read Orange is the New Black and I haven’t seen more than three episodes of the show. So, it is maybe a little weird that I went to see her speak at Outloud! But, friends of mine wanted to go and I like the library and my friends so I figured it would be worth it. I know so little about our prison system that I figured at the very least I would learn something and that is always good.
I was surprised by how long Kerman spoke. I was expecting that she would talk for an hour about her experiences and about why we need prison reform but she talked for more than an hour. I’m not all that interested in her experiences (which is why I haven’t read the book) but I do believe America is desperate need of prison reform. Since Kerman stuck to her time in prison and used that to illuminate issues facing anyone involved in our criminal justice system I don’t think I really learned anything new. When we look at our prison system, well, when I’ve looked at our prison and criminal justice systems it doesn’t seem like we’re getting a lot of things right. America has had to close prisons because of multiple allegations of rape which is particularly horrifying when women in prison report histories that include violence and trauma (such as intimate partner violence and sexual abuse). We have the largest documented prison population and we send people to prison for nonviolent crimes even when they have no history of violence. And, on top of that there are documented disparities in sentencing based on race. Kerman’s talk was well-structured and it highlighted some of these facts about our prison system. She spoke very clearly and if the only reading you have done about our prison system is her memoir, I can imagine how this talk could have been enlightening.
She did talk about things that we could all do to help with prison reform. Of particular importance for readers in Iowa is to keep in contact with our senior senator Chuck Grassley as he heads the Senate Judiciary committee. Kerman also suggested people become volunteers and consider donating things like books to local jails and prisons. She did not mention any local or national organizations that coordinate volunteers nor were any of those groups present in an official capacity at the talk (at least to my knowledge).
I am happy that I went to hear her speak but at the end of the talk I was left wondering: Why is her voice the only voice I see in the mainstream media talking about prison reform? Kerman answered many questions about her memoir and was quick to point out that hers is only one voice out there on our prison system. I would have liked her to mention some of those authors so that we could read them and get alternative views on the prison system. (It was a library event, after all). Thankfully, I had someone I could ask. My friend Kathrina Litchfield is a PhD student in the University of Iowa’s College of Education’s Language, Literacy and Culture program. She studies the benefits of libraries and literacy programs among incarcerated populations. She co-organized last year’s Incarcerated in Iowa Symposium and she recommended this first book:
Jimmy Santiago Baca spent time in a maximum security prison and his memoir focuses on his life before, during, and immediately after his time in prison. I haven’t yet read this book but I was told it was significantly darker than Kerman’s memoir.
For another opinion about reform I suggest Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Y. Davis. In this book, Davis lays out the history of our prison system, suggests that the time for prisons might be approaching an end, and suggests that society as a whole might be in need of transformation. In all honesty, I’m still working on this book but so far I can say that it has impacted how I see the prison and criminal justice systems.
Finally, I would like to suggest one organization that might be of interest to you if you are thinking of volunteering. Black and Pink is an LGBTQ organization built around the idea of prison abolition and connecting LGBTQ prisoners and free-world allies. If you are interested in finding a prison penpal, they have a program set up. They may also have a local chapter that you can get involved in.