‘Orange Is the New Black’ Author Urges Congress to Care for Women Prisoners

Piper Kerman is taking a stance on mental health and education issues in federal correctional facilities.

Piper Kerman testifies on Aug. 4 during the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing "Oversight of the Bureau of Prisons: First-Hand Accounts of Challenges Facing the Federal Prison System." (Photo: Bill Clark/'CQ Roll Call'/Getty Images)

Aug 4, 2015· 1 MIN READ
TakePart editorial fellow Nicole Mormann covers a variety of topics, including social justice, entertainment, and environment.

Women’s rights are being ignored in federal prisons, according to a now famous former inmate who testified before Congress Tuesday, saying mental health and educational programs are inadequate.

Piper Kerman, author of memoir-turned-Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, told senators on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that poor and mentally ill women were disproportionately hurt by a dysfunctional system.

“I saw women in prisons denied necessary medical care and women with mental health issues wait for months to see the one psychiatrist who was available for 1,400 women,” Kerman said.

About a decade ago, Kerman served a 13-month sentence on drug-trafficking charges at the Danbury federal correction facility in Connecticut, which inspired her advocacy work in the area of prison reform.

An estimated 56 percent of state prisoners, 45 percent of federal prisoners, and 64 percent of jail inmates have a mental health problem, according to a 2015 report from Washington, D.C.–based think tank Urban Institute. Many of them receive inadequate care, with only one in three state prisoners and one in six jail inmates receiving mental health treatment in custody.

What resources are available are often inadequate, Kerman added. She recalled her own experience in a mandatory class before release—she was expecting help in finding affordable housing, but instead, a construction worker showed up as the instructor.

“The mostly poor, minority women in the class desperately wanted to know how someone with a felony and few resources could find safe and affordable housing to live in after release…. Instead we heard about fiberglass insulation, roof maintenance, and home improvement tips,” Kerman said of the experience.

On top of that, a former pro football player taught Kerman another class—this time on mental health options for prisoners after release.

After witnessing these injustices, Kerman proposed that the Federal Bureau of Prisons give incarcerated women the option of living in halfway houses. This way, prisons could reduce their population while providing convicts with an effective transition into their home communities.

“The research on criminal justice–involved women and girls shows that the risk factors I mentioned required different approaches in order to reduce women’s recidivism and result in successful reentry,” she said.