By Cliff Mathieson
California needs to get its priorities straight, author Piper Kerman told a packed CPAC during her sold-out Book of the Year speech. The state is spending billions more jailing its citizens than it is teaching them, Kerman said.
Best-selling author Piper Kerman came to Cuesta on April 3 to talk about her memoir, “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison.” Kerman took part in two different events at the school as part of the Cuesta library’s Book of the Year celebration.
Kerman’s take-home message at the event was that the community needs to be mindful of where it is using its valuable resources
“It’s all about choices,” Kerman said. “Here in California—these are 2011 numbers—you spent $6 billion on higher education and you spent $9 billion on prisons. Let’s maybe flip the switch on that one.”
At her CPAC speech, Kerman showed a Powerpoint presentation and touched on her background, her time behind bars and her life after release.
The motivation behind writing the memoir, Kerman said, was to give average people a genuine look at what really goes on in prison: the people there, the different paths to incarceration, and what really happens to folks behind the walls.
“I hoped that, if I did a decent job, maybe I could get someone to pick up a book about prison who might not otherwise pick up a book about prison,” Kerman said.
Kerman took an in-depth look at the ideas behind the themes in her book such as race and class, gender and power, friendship, empathy and family. She talked about how all of these things are important to understanding the plight of the inmate.
Near the end of her presentation, which was attended by a crowd that skewed a bit older than the average Cuesta classroom, Kerman took a step back from her story and shifted the focus toward the American prison system as a whole.
“This is a lot of people.” Kerman said. “This isn’t some fringe issue; this is a central question for us as a country.”
Throughout the event Kerman came across as friendly and relatable, yet authoritative. The crowd was very receptive to her message, often applauding her challenges to the prison system.
“Orange is the New Black” was chosen by the library’s Book of the Year committee due to its relevance to Cuesta’s students, staff and faculty, said technical services librarian Carina Love, who helped coordinate the event.
“I think that prison touches so many families,” Love said, “it is important to understand what it feels like and how it affects people. … Students are at the age where they can make a difference.”
The “hooks” that can be used to tie into other events also come into consideration in the Book of the Year decision process, Love said. The library noticed a lot of controversy and discussion surrounding California’s prison system following the passage of AB 109.
AB 109 is a California bill that was passed in 2011; it shifts the responsibility of taking care of low-risk inmates from the state to the counties.
“We saw those issues happening and we picked the book based on that,” Love said.
The cost of getting the author to speak at Cuesta is another factor, according to Love. The Book of the Year budget was about $10,000, she said. The money was raised through donations and fundraisers.
One of the ancillary Book of the Year events that the library put on was a round-table discussion involving Piper Kerman and people directly involved in SLO’s prison system, such as Sheriff Ian Parker.
The central topic of the round table was AB 109’s impact on the community.
A large chunk of the discussion was focused on the topic of what the system needs to do to make sure that former inmates will not end up back in jail.
“How can we affect that behavior? How can we give them the tools when they get out to not re-offend?” Parker asked.
A few of the panelists, including SLO county anti-gang coordinator Marci Powers, thought that the problem could be solved by using the community’s resources to help create a society where people would be less likely to gravitate toward crime in the first place.
“For years now, we’ve been seeing our school budgets decreased while our prison budgets have gone way up. I just think there’s something really wrong with that picture,” Powers said. “If you do the math, we’re spending about $7,000 on a kid and about $50,000 on an inmate. Really? This is how we want our taxpayer dollars spent?”
Piper Kerman was not able to comment on SLO County’s specific penal situation, but she did have a lot to say about what she thinks is wrong with America’s prison situation at a fundamental level.
“One of the things that I firmly believe is that when someone transgresses against the community, the best possible thing is for them to remain in the community to make amends—whatever form that sentence takes,” Kerman said.
Both the round table and Kerman’s speech inspired discussion about the American prison system in the crowd.
“To see the rich array of programs and discussions that this [Book of the Year] program has evoked within this community is truly all that I dreamed of when I sat down to try to write this book,” Kerman said.
Check out Kerman’s lecture in its entirety: https://www.youtube.com/watch?