The Humanities Intersect with Prison Reform: Piper Kerman on Injustices in the U.S. Prison System
The National Endowment for the Humanities website states that “democracy demands wisdom,” thereby establishing an essential link between the humanities and social justice. It is this connection that the Boston University Center for the Humanities sought to explore at an event co-hosted by the Law Student Affairs Office, the Law Student Government Association, and Kilachand Honors College featuring Piper Kerman, author of the bestselling memoir Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison. Kerman’s talk focused on systemic injustices within the prison system, drawing an obvious connection to the law school’s involvement in the conversation, but some may wonder what role a humanities center plays in a discussion of the criminal justice system.
The answer may lie in the act of storytelling itself, which is a powerful tool for both amplifying ideas and interrogating them. In her introduction, Kerman explained that her understanding of narrative structure came from her undergraduate work as a theater major. Kerman’s narrative bent allowed her to shape a story that was compelling, “especially to people who had no real life experience with the criminal justice system,” ultimately giving her work greater reach. In choosing to begin the night by speaking about her undergraduate studies and their influence on her ability to transform her own troubled story into a literary work with wide appeal, Kerman established the central role her humanities background played in examining, interpreting, and spreading her message.
The success of the fictionalized television serial based on Kerman’s work further demonstrates the power of humanistic inquiry in telling a story. When William Arrowsmith Professor in the Humanities and director of the Boston University Center for the Humanities Susan Mizruchi asked Kerman to speak about the show’s greatest accomplishment, Kerman responded that she enjoyed watching the show take on a new life—one that was somewhat separate from her own original experience, vision, and memoir—and that she was proud of its tremendous reach. As the fourth-ever Netflix original show when it premiered in 2013, Orange is the New Black set a precedent in its release and success. Kerman acknowledged the impact of the show, explaining that when the show came out “entertainment was about to be changed dramatically, and we were part of that change. And that was really fortunate for us.” In the case of Orange is the New Black, the positive reaction to streaming service content greatly expanded its reach. The fictionalized television series and her memoir have given Kerman a visible platform for her social justice work, showing the strong potential for narratives in different mediums to be agents of real world change. Throughout the presentation, Kerman emphasized the importance of moving from merely raising awareness to taking action on behalf of those who are at the mercy of the criminal justice system. In this spirit, she linked multiple resources in the Zoom chat pertaining to criminal justice activist groups in Massachusetts and the United States at large. Responses in the chat included thanks and follow-up questions, demonstrating the audience’s commitment to engage with these resources.
Kerman’s talk addressed not only the harnessing of important messages into mass media, but also how to grapple with stories on a personal level. Kerman spoke to her work teaching memoir writing to incarcerated people. She explained that “every prison story is a survival story,” one that those living may struggle to make sense of. The examination of the human experience that is central to the humanities therefore not only serves as a vehicle for sharing the message of such stories with the public, but also as a more private vehicle of liberation or psychological and spiritual freedom for those incarcerated people telling their own stories.
The fictionalization of Kerman’s story via the television serial allows viewers to examine the prison system from different angles, which is precisely the kind of lens afforded by critical work in the humanities. Kerman noted that a common experience of writers is the understanding that once their work is published “it really belongs to the audience,” and that this truth was intensified by the creation of the television show. Kerman explained that one of the show’s major successes was show creator Jenji Kohan’s ability to “crack open the book” and talk about the prison experience from multiple perspectives. Furthermore, in fictionalizing a narrative and separating experiences from a specific individual, we are able to examine trends and ideas without becoming too anecdotal. It is understood that the story is not one, unique experience but rather a deeper examination of truths lived out in many ways.
Kerman’s presentation was rooted in injustices in the prison system, but its reach and topics extended beyond strictly criminal justice issues. The humanities allow audiences to engage with Kerman’s experiences, as well as experiences and implications beyond one woman’s lived reality. What follows is up to audiences, as they use their new understandings, or even questions, to address injustices, strengthen social justice and make our polity more truly democratic.
Click here to see resources Piper Kerman linked in Zoom chat.