Culture

“Orange Is The New Black,” indeed: Piper Kerman gives a TEDx Talk on life in prison

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick May

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Many of us in the TED office are in Orange Is the New Black withdrawal. We watched the first season’s episodes of the Netflix series in rapid succession, and now are having a very hard time being patient while a new season is made. If, like us, the mere mention of the show sends Regina Spektor’s “You’ve Got Time” blasting through your head, then you will want to watch this TEDx talk from Piper Kerman, the woman whose memoir inspired the show.

In the talk, Kerman tells the story of how, at age 34, she was sent to federal prison for delivering drug money a decade earlier. She shares the lessons she learned on the inside — lessons about prison survival, lessons about a broken justice system, and larger lessons about life.

This talk is especially powerful because it was given at TEDxMarionCorrectional, an event held inside a prison in Ohio  that features talks from inmates and employees of the prison system. (Watch three talks from it in 2012.) Event organizers Jo Dee Davis and Jordan Edelheit shared with the TED Blog their rationale for inviting Kerman to speak. “The men who curate and attend the TEDxMarionCorrectional repeatedly asked if we thought inviting her would bring the issue [of prisons] up to people who normally wouldn’t give it a thought,” they said. “Prison and prisoners are much hidden and unknown. There is a mystery about things that happen in the dark and behind bars and fences. This real story fills in the gaps and answers some questions.”

While telling her story, Kerman makes a plea to the inmates in the audience: talk about your experience. “There are 700,000 people coming home from prison and jail every single year in this country,” she says. “When people know the real stories of real people, they will recognize that our incarceration mania is a real problem.”

Once you’ve watched Kerman’s talk, check out these other great TED Talks on the prison system:

Angela Patton: A father-daughter dance ... in prisonAngela Patton: A father-daughter dance ... in prisonAngela Patton: A father-daughter dance … in prison
Angela Patton got a surprise when she asked a group of teenage girls about organizing a father-daughter dance—one of them said her father couldn’t come because he was in prison. And so, Patton decided to bring the dance to him. In this talk from TEDxWomen, Patton describes how she got permission to bring a group of daughters into a jail for this event, and how the dance makes inmates less likely to ever be incarcerated again.
Bryan Stevenson: We need to talk about an injusticeBryan Stevenson: We need to talk about an injusticeBryan Stevenson: We need to talk about injustice
In one of the most gutturally moving talks in TED history, Bryan Stevenson condemns a justice system that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent. The founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, he personalizes the shocking racial imbalance in American prisons, noting that a third of the country’s black male population has been incarcerated at some point in their lives. It’s a powerful look at what can, and must, change.
Jeff Smith: Lessons in business ... from prisonJeff Smith: Lessons in business ... from prisonJeff Smith: Lessons in business … from prison
Jeff Smith spent a year in jail for campaign fraud. While on the inside, he found himself continually inspired by the ingenuity and business acumen of his fellow prisoners. At TED@NYC, he sounds a bold call for the system to harness this entrepreneurial talent to set inmates up for better lives when they are released.
Damon Horowitz: Philosophy in prisonDamon Horowitz: Philosophy in prisonDamon Horowitz: Philosophy in prison
Damon Horowitz teaches college-level philosophy classes to inmates of San Quentin State Prison. In this fast-paced talk from TED2011, he tells the story of a student whose initial thoughts on right and wrong lead to a passion for living the examined life.

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