The Woman Who Lived ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Warns Congress About Solitary Confinement

Piper Kerman, an inmate-turned-prison reform activist, testified at a Senate hearing Tuesday.

Piper Kerman.
National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
Feb. 25, 2014, 11:50 a.m.

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Or­ange Is the New Black may be a dark com­edy, but the wo­man who lived the story wants Amer­ica to know that noth­ing’s funny about be­ing on the in­side, es­pe­cially in­side sol­it­ary con­fine­ment.

Piper Ker­man, whose 2010 pris­on ac­count was ad­ap­ted in­to a Net­flix ori­gin­al series last year and be­came an in­stant binge-watch­ing suc­cess, test­i­fied be­fore a Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee hear­ing Tues­day about the use of sol­it­ary con­fine­ment by the fed­er­al Bur­eau of Pris­ons.

“Warn­ings of sol­it­ary con­fine­ment came very quickly, and very minor in­frac­tions could send you to the SHU,” Ker­man said of her first days in pris­on, us­ing an ac­ronym for se­cur­ity hous­ing unit, a term for sol­it­ary con­fine­ment. Ker­man served 13 months of a 15-month sen­tence in a min­im­um-se­cur­ity fed­er­al pris­on in Con­necti­c­ut for her in­volve­ment in a then-dec­ade-old drug-money laun­der­ing scheme.

When an­oth­er in­mate over­heard Ker­man jok­ing about a hun­ger strike to protest the poor pris­on food, the wo­man told her, “Listen, honey, I know you just got here so I know that you don’t know what’s what. That kind of shit you’re talk­ing about, hun­ger strikes, that kind of shit, that’s in­cit­ing a ri­ot. They will lock your ass up in SHU in a heart­beat. So take a tip from me and watch what you say.”

Pris­on staff, Ker­man told the sen­at­ors in at­tend­ance, could keep in­mates in sol­it­ary con­fine­ment for as long as they wanted. Un­like the main char­ac­ter of the show, Ker­man did not ac­tu­ally enter sol­it­ary con­fine­ment, but offered the ac­count of a fe­male in­mate who did in her testi­mony. The wo­man, Ker­man said, felt re­morse for her crimes, but “most of all I felt sorry that there wasn’t a rope to kill my­self, be­cause every day was worse than the last.”

The prac­tice of sol­it­ary con­fine­ment is “un­pro­duct­ive for in­di­vidu­als, for pris­on in­sti­tu­tions, and the out­side com­munity, to which 97 per­cent of pris­on­ers re­turn,” she said Tues­day.

“Land­ing in [sol­it­ary con­fine­ment] can be ex­tremely ar­bit­rary, and it’s not a pro­cess that ex­tends out to the gen­er­al courts. This is de­cided with­in the pris­on sys­tem, with little to no checks and bal­ances,” she told Dylan Mat­thews, formerly of The Wash­ing­ton Post, last sum­mer.

Some pris­on em­ploy­ees, Ker­man said, use sol­it­ary con­fine­ment to threaten fe­male in­mates to keep quiet about sexu­al ab­use by guards. The prac­tice is es­pe­cially dam­aging for wo­men who suf­fer men­tal ill­nesses and those who are preg­nant. “For health and safety, preg­nant wo­men should nev­er be placed in sol­it­ary con­fine­ment, and yet this is al­lowed throughout pris­ons in the U.S.,” she said.

Ker­man, a com­mu­nic­a­tions strategist for Spit­fire Strategies, has been vo­cal about pris­on re­form since her in­car­cer­a­tion. She sits on the board of the Wo­men’s Pris­on As­so­ci­ation, and has worked to chal­lenge “stop and frisk” policies in New York.

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