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‘Orange is the New Black’ author to Congress: Reform ‘patriarchal’ criminal justice system


Piper Kerman, the author who inspired the Netflix show “Orange is the New Black,” urged lawmakers on Tuesday to pass criminal justice reforms to improve conditions for female inmates.

“American prisons and jails are built by and for men, governed by policies and procedures developed for male prisoners,” Kerman told a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on women and girls in the criminal justice system in her written testimony.

“I can assure you there is no institution more hierarchical, dominance-oriented, patriarchal and based on the threat and promise of violence than an American prison. This is not an accident; it is by design.”{mosads}

In the late 1990s, Kerman served 13 months in prison after pleading guilty to drug trafficking and money laundering charges.

In 2010, she would publish a memoir about her experiences, Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Woman’s Prison, which later debuted as a breakout hit on Netflix in 2013.

Kerman has become a vocal advocate on prison reform issues, in particular those that impact the lives of female inmates. 

Kerman said rates of incarceration for women have risen at two times the rate for men over the last four decades.

Kerman in her testimony also lamented the toll prison takes on female inmates, even long after they have left. She said many women were sexually abused before entering prison, leaving them vulnerable while serving their sentences.

Kerman also shared her shock, when she first learned there were pregnant women in prisons.

“I remember just being so confused … It never occurred to me that there would be pregnant women in prison,” she told lawmakers.

“And I am still deeply confused by that. I am deeply troubled by the fact that so many women enter prison and of course they’ve already gone through an entire process prior to incarceration, and that our choice as a society is to force them to go through their pregnancy and childbirth while in custody,” Kerman said.

Kerman said the pregnant woman she saw in prison was in labor for 12 hours.

“She was occasionally checked on by staff, but the other female inmates primarily helped her,” she said.

The hearing covered a broad range of issues, with lawmakers hearing from Kerman and other witnesses on the need to reform sentences for drug offenses, the lack of health services for women in prison, issues with sexual harassment in prison and the economic challenges women face when they leave prison.

Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security, which held the hearing, said she hoped the it would bring about change.

“We need to examine the needs of women when they are incarcerated,” she said.

This story was updated on July 17 at 10:25 a.m.

Tags Criminal justice reform female prisoners Karen Bass Orange is the New Black
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