Teresa Mathew
August 05, 2015 2:15 pm

Most people are well aware that the hit Netflix show Orange is the New Black is based on a memoir by the real-life Piper Kerman. But fewer know how the author is using her clout to advocate for the rights of women in the federal prison system.

This past Tuesday, Kerman testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to talk about her own experiences and those of the women she knew while incarcerated. Specifically, she spoke to the congressional committee about how the prison system is failing these women.

Kerman began by stressing that listening to her and other women about their experiences is crucial when it comes to understanding the reforms that are needed in the criminal justice system. As she pointed out, women are the fastest growing segment in the system — according to the ACLU, the population of incarcerated women has increased at nearly double the rate of men since 1985.

She urged for a reform of the system and the way women are treated and educated within prisons. “The rate of sexual abuse and other physical violence that women experience prior to incarceration is staggering.” Kerman said. “Female prisoners suffer these problems at greater rates than male prisoners and these experiences are relevant both to their crimes and to their incarcerations. But these issues are not being adequately addressed by the Bureau of Prisons…The Bureau of Prisons should adopt gender-responsive correctional approaches that interrupt cycles of unnecessary suffering.” According to Kerman, incarcerated men and women require different approaches that they are simply not receiving in the majority of the country’s prisons.

Kerman noted that, “63% of women in prison are there for nonviolent offences—many are incarcerated due to substance abuse and mental health issues which are overwhelmingly prevalent in prisons and jails,” and went on to point out that, despite knowledge of issues, access to medical care and mental health professionals is far too limited for prisoners. Kerman spoke about how, at a prison she visited, there was only 1 psychiatrist for 1400 prisoners. And at a class ostensibly designed to teach women how to find housing after they were released from prison, the instructor (a man who worked in construction at the prison) gave the women “home improvement tips” instead of the information they sought—namely how, even with a felony conviction and few resources, they could find safe and affordable housing after release.

As the current director of the Bureau of Prisons is retiring, Kerman wrapped up her testimony by urging the Obama administration to look outside the current Bureau of Prisons leadership for his replacement—one who can “value the role of communities and families in rehabilitee and understand the particular needs of women.”

You can watch her full testimony here:

Related reading:

How “Orange Is the New Black” is inspiring prison reform

All the best besties on this season of ‘Orange Is the New Black’

[Images via Twitter and Shutterstock]

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