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Justice served: Piper pipes up about prison system

Kaitie Espeleta (left), senior and president of Miami Television News (MTN), interviews former prisoner, author and activist Piper Kerman Monday afternoon in Williams Hall.

Lingering in the doorway, gathered in clusters on the adjacent sidewalk or huddled in groups beneath nearby trees, Miami students and faculty waited anxiously to hear former prison inmate Piper Kerman speak Monday night at Hall Auditorium.

Kerman's lecture, made possible by the Miami University Lecture series and entitled "Orange + Black = Gray: Injustice in the Criminal Justice System," sold out within hours of going live last Wednesday, Sept. 24. The show's 735 tickets became available at 8 a.m., and the last of them had been distributed by 1 p.m. the same day, Miami Box Office supervisor Craig Harkrider said.

Throughout her lecture, Kerman engaged the audience through a lighthearted account of her experience in a women's prison. She explained how, nearly two decades ago, she became romantically involved with another woman who later revealed her role in an international drug trade. Kerman, young and seeking adventure, soon found herself involved as well.

Eager to cut ties and put the situation behind her, Kerman moved to California and began her career, hoping to forget about the brief escapade in which she carried drug money across international borders.

Several quiet years went by before Kerman's past caught up with her.

"The consequences of our actions come back to us in one form or another," she said during her lecture. "In my case, that was a knock on the door in 1998 … when I began my journey with the American criminal justice system."

Sentenced to 15 months in prison, of which she served only 13 for good behavior, Piper Kerman was quickly stripped of her identity and christened "inmate number 11187-424" by the Danbury Women's Correctional Facility.

Her experiences later prompted her to write the New York Times Bestseller, "Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison," which has now been adapted into an original Netflix series, now filming its third season.

But Kerman's time in prison gave her more than just a story to tell; the lessons she learned and people she met also gave her a cause to defend, one that matches the namesake of her lecture: injustices in the criminal justice system.

In her lecture, Kerman detailed three major changes that she thought would help the the country that has the world's largest prison population - that is, the United States.

The first, she said, would be common sense sentencing, meaning that the government should remove all of those imprisoned who "shouldn't be there." To her, that meant reducing drug sentences, increasing public safety solutions by providing alternatives to incarceration and dealing with mental health and substance abuse outside of the criminal justice system.

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A second change she recommended was in public defense, as she cited that 80 percent of defendants are too poor to afford an attorney, and finally, she argued that there should be reforms to children in the criminal justice system.

"No child belongs in adult prison, I don't care what they've done," Kerman said. "It's hard for an institution to run well when they have kids who don't belong in those settings."

But stepping back and looking at the bigger picture, Kerman said she wishes some of the stigmas prisoners face could change as well.

"What I want for everyone who is in the system is not to be seen for their worst days - their most screwed up choices - but for their best days," she said.

After all, she said she would not want anyone to judge her based on the day she stood in the Brussels airport, waiting for a piece of luggage to come through the baggage claim that happened to be filled with illegal drug money. She would want them to look at her today, as she defends the rights of otherwise defenseless women prisoners.

Journalism professor and lecture series committee member Patricia Newberry escorted Kerman around Miami for the day.

Newberry, who claimed to have binge watched both seasons of the OITNB Netflix series, said she was thrilled by Kerman's lecture.

"I thought she was great, as a member of the committee and a member of the audience," Newberry said. "It would be easy to come and give you the fallacious details about being a prisoner for a year or comment about the outlandish characters from the book. I was really happy she went beyond those talking points, that she talked about the flaws in our criminal justice system, the conditions under which our prisoners are held, the particular hardships of being a woman."

Others in the audience Monday night also appreciated the depth of Kerman's speech. Miami senior Tessa Subler said she expected the lecture to be a recap of Kerman's prison story, but was pleased that it went a bit further.

"I loved that she told so many facts about the prison system," Subler said. "I thought it was really eye-opening, like the point she made about changing the budget to spend more money on education and mental health and health care. That would drastically change the number of people sent to prison."

Subler said she had really wanted to see Kerman speak at Miami because she is a big fan of the show, but other students attended the lecture not knowing what to expect. Senior Kristi Csatary was one of them. "I thought she was a good speaker … with an interesting experience," Csatary said. "She made some really good points, I was just absorbing it all. I'm intrigued now though. She made me want to read her book and want to watch the show."

Newberry, who was with Kerman for a student press conference, Q&A session and dinner, said she was pleased with the way Kerman interacted with Miami students.

"She was completely gracious," Newberry said. "[She] approached every questions as if it was fresh and smart, not rehearsed."

Newberry also said Kerman was interested in learning more about Miami as well.

"She asked nice questions about Miami," Newberry said. "Not all of our guests who come here really want to know much, but she asked about the student body, our dynamic on campus."

And, despite her celebrity status, Kerman maintained a graceful way of engaging the audience as equals, much of which she accomplished through humor.

"Uh, I had egg whites and waffles for breakfast, pretty much what I have every morning," she said instantly, when asked to test her microphone at the press conference Monday afternoon. "And boy, it's nice to be here in Oxford."