When Piper Kerman carried $10,000 in drug money from Chicago to Brussels in 1993, she never expected to actually go to jail. She was one year out of college at Smith and waiting tables. Back then, she believed that people like her—white, upper class, and educated—were unlikely to go to jail.
The transaction went smoothly. Life went on.
But five years later, in 1998, agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation knocked on the door of her apartment on New York City’s West 4th Street. The Orange Is The New Black memoirist was indicted for money laundering and drug trafficking and faced 12 years behind bars, “which was confusing for me,” Kerman told an audience at the Brooklyn Museum on Saturday. Kerman’s talk, moderated by ProPublica senior reporter Ginger Thompson, was a part of the Brooklyn Museum public series “States of Denial: The Illegal Incarceration of Women, Children and People of Color.” The series is an ongoing discussion of America’s mass incarceration, presented by the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.
She served only 13 months in federal prison in Connecticut, but her world was changed forever. Popular media portrayals of prison life, especially the lives of incarcerated women, would soon follow.
“Something that I thought was ‘happening to me’ was and had been happening to a lot of people,” Kerman said. “Low-level, nonviolent drug offenders are not the typical characters in most of the media that I had seen growing up.”
Largely privileged as a Boston youth, she had “never even thought” about the larger sociopolitical context of drug policies when she carried that drug money. “I’d never thought about the connections between social control and the heyday of lynching,” she explained. “And those things all start to intertwine when you look at the history of drug prohibition in this country.”
Until recently, narrative media didn't show drug offenders realistically, the 46-year-old said. Popular portrayals show a drug trafficker as a “bad guy” first, then eventually, a “not so bad,” morally ambiguous character. Nonviolent drug offenders, she argued, are not senseless goons. Instead, the women she met while incarcerated were victims of a system that too often gives drug offenders an irreversible lifetime stamp of “badness” with no chance for redemption. “The portrayal of the drug war is necessary because otherwise we would be overwhelmed with violence,” Kerman said.
Popular shows like the Netflix original series loosely based on events from Kerman’s memoir have been a great force in redefining how prisoners are perceived. “Our perception of who is addicted to drugs is beginning to change,” Kerman explained, applauding television shows like The Wire for challenging watchers to think differently about “the wisdom or the folly of the war on drugs.”
Kerman continues to question the effects of mass incarceration in the United States. I spoke to Kerman after the panel about the effects of the war on drugs, on screen and off.
Alli Maloney: Has the war on drugs been a success? If so, for what groups and entities?
Piper Kerman: American drug policy has not reduced substance-use disorder and addiction. It has sent an unprecedented number of our citizens to prison, and there are tens of millions of Americans with a criminal record. American drug policies have also fostered violence, while illegal drugs are now cheaper, more potent and easier to get than when the war on drugs began. All of the impacts of American drug policy are disproportionately felt by poor communities of color.
AM: You were born two years before President Richard Nixon coined "war on drugs" in 1971, and the phrase has been omnipresent ever since. What was the first war on drugs-related programming that you can remember watching?
PK: I was a teenager in the eighties, so the Nancy Reagan, D.A.R.E. propaganda is probably the first media I remember.
AM: And the least realistic depiction you’ve seen?
PK: The Partnership for a Drug-Free America public service announcements targeting teenagers. Unforgettable in a bad way.
AM: What makes television, film, books, or radio an effective way to reclaim the narrative of the lives of people arrested for drugs?
PK: The “chicken’s eye view” from drug users and sellers is very important if we want to correct misconceptions about substance use, addiction, and underground markets. For decades we’ve had a relentless focus on social control, the fantasy that reducing supply is the answer, and a sole reliance on law enforcement to address public health problems.
But almost all of us know someone who has struggled with addiction, and more and more of us know someone who’s been caught up in the criminal justice system. I think stories that reflect reality will help us confront bad government drug policies, and the disgraceful racial disparities that we see when punishment is our official response to drug use and sales. We need the human side of the story, because the data alone has not moved us towards common sense laws and policies.
AM: How does the war on drugs impact women? What unique circumstances do they face?
PK: Women in the criminal justice system have higher rates of addiction, and are frequently convicted of very low-level offenses. Yet there’s evidence that they are often sentenced more harshly than men for similar offenses. Most women in the criminal justice system are mothers, often single mothers, and a felony conviction has a significant punitive effect on a family.
AM: Are there pockets of the extremely nuanced war on drugs that you’d like to see covered more effectively?
PK: I think there’s a lot of consensus that what we’re doing in the U.S. isn’t working, so I’d like to see more coverage of how we should do things differently. That includes public health policies and decriminalization that other countries have put in place, and the handful of places in the U.S. where common sense approaches to drug policy are gaining traction.
This interview has been slightly condensed and edited.
Alli Maloney is a writer.