Piper Kerman: Solitary Confinement Is 'Unproductive'
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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