By Claire Byun
Better care of inmates while they are in prison and more opportunities for them after they are free will help reduce the likelihood that they will offend again, said the woman whose biography about life inside prison inspired the award-winning television series “Orange is the New Black.”
Author Piper Kerman and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu spoke together on criminal-justice reform during a forum Wednesday evening at the Ashe Cultural Arts Center where they touched on the socioeconomic, racial and gendered politics of prisoners.
“We’re the most incarcerated country in the world, and especially in Louisiana,” Kerman said.
The panel discussed the problems and possible solutions to the growing rate of offenders, and both touched on the importance of mental-health facilities and improved police training. The forum drew about 70 people and gave audience members a chance to ask questions of both Kerman and Landrieu.
Kerman served more than a year in prison for drug crimes, inspiring her to write “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Woman’s Prison.” Her biography was adapted into the hit Netflix series “Orange is the New Black,” which is going on its fourth season.
Kerman said the show isn’t a biopic – so not everything is true – but the adaptation is based on “issues present with incarceration: race; class; gender; power; and friendship.”
She now speaks on criminal-justice reform because of her experience in prison, where she realized criminal law didn’t match up to her idea of justice. Incarceration in America raises many issues, Kerman said, but the disparity of treatment between gender, race and class inside prison is an example of systematic oppression.
Women imprisoned experience a higher rate of sexual and physical violence – either outside or inside jail – and face gender-based discrimination more than men, Kerman said. Giving birth in shackles or being assaulted by prison staff are just two examples of “traumas” invoked in women’s facilities.
Those living with mental illness are much more likely to suffer in prison, regardless of gender, Kerman added.
“The way we’ve chosen to do things in the criminal justice system is not healing people, it’s not reforming people,” she said. “It’s often making things worse.”
Landrieu,who spoke alongside Kerman, said his NOLA FOR LIFE program seeks to improve both the justice system and those who have been incarcerated.
NOLA FOR LIFE is Landrieu’s strategic plan to combat the city’s historically high murder rate. Launched in May 2012, the program focuses on five crime-reducing measures: stopping the shooting; investing in prevention; promoting opportunities; strengthening the New Orleans Police Department; and rebuilding neighborhoods.
Both Kerman and Landrieu touched on the impact of current criminal justice incentives and statues on black men and women. Historically, black people have been the “least free and the least safe,” which breeds inequality – and inequality breeds violence.
“We know that not all Americans are equally free and equally safe, and that’s been true throughout the entire history of this country,” Kerman said.
Many solutions lie in reforming systematic situations that foster segregation and racial hierarchy, Kerman said, though mental health treatment is also key. Providing inmates and at-risk individuals access to mental health care – both preventative and treatment – will help curve crime rates.
Landrieu told the crowd that funding mental health is important, but training and supervising police is another key factor in reducing the number of Louisiana inmates.
Providing opportunities for all people – regardless of race, class or socioeconomic stature – is also important in reducing crime, Landrieu said.
Bruce Reilly, who’s on probation, stood in line during the forum’s question-and-answer portion to address Landrieu. Reilly brought up the reality of many people living in the city – some people may have streamed through the criminal justice system without going to prison. But, because of their conviction, they’ve lost certain rights and opportunities– namely job opportunities, Reilly said.
Reilly wanted to know if Landrieu supported the idea of restoring certain rights – and removing some restrictions – on felons to make living with a conviction successful. Landrieu said he was on board with reform.
“If you’re trying to create a community that’s safe, and you put policies that put people in jail and make it more likely for them to go back – that’s not a successful program,” Landrieu said.
Claire Byun is a freelance multimedia journalist based in New Orleans.