'Orange Is The New Black' Author Piper Kerman Talks War on Drugs

By Seth Ferranti 09/19/16

"American drug policies have fostered violence, while illegal drugs are now cheaper, more potent and easier to get than when the War on Drugs began."

'Orange Is The New Black' Author Piper Kerman Talks War on Drugs

On the heels of Jay Z’s monumental short film calling the drug war an “epic fail,” Piper Kerman, author of Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison, reiterated her stance on the hot topic in a talk at the Brooklyn Museum’s "States of Denial: The Illegal Incarceration of Women, Children and People of Color" series, a continuing discussion centered on America’s prison-industrial complex.

President Obama has spearheaded a prison reform movement with his record number of clemency grants, but it’s obvious he needs help. Public opinion has done a 360 in regards to the drug war, but some politicians and law enforcement agencies like the DEA are still toeing the hard line and sending drug-dealing addicts to prison for overdose deaths that are out of their control.

“American drug policy has not reduced substance-use disorder and addiction,” Kerman told Fusion in a recent interview. “It has sent an unprecedented number of our citizens to prison, and there are tens of millions of Americans with a criminal record. American drug policies have also fostered violence, while illegal drugs are now cheaper, more potent and easier to get than when the War on Drugs began. All of the impacts of American drug policy are disproportionately felt by poor communities of color.”

In her talk at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, Kerman told guests that she hadn't thought that upper-class white people went to prison, but when she was indicted for money laundering and drug trafficking in 1998 for carrying $10,000 in drug money to Brussels in 1993, she faced a harsh reality—a reality that made her realize that if this was happening to her, then it was most likely happening to a lot of people, women especially. 

“Women in the criminal justice system have higher rates of addiction, and are frequently convicted of very low-level offenses,” Kerman said. “Yet there’s evidence that they are often sentenced more harshly than men for similar offenses. Most women in the criminal justice system are mothers, often single mothers, and a felony conviction has a significant punitive effect on a family.”

The movement to end the drug war is afoot, but without more contributions from artists like Jay Z and NOFX, and testimonials from people who experienced prohibition-related incarceration firsthand (like Kerman and cause célèbre Tim Tyler, who just had his life sentence commuted by President Obama), the "lock 'em up and throw away the key" mentality will prevail.

“I think there’s a lot of consensus that what we’re doing in the U.S. isn’t working, so I’d like to see more coverage of how we should do things differently,” Kerman said. “That includes public health policies and decriminalization that other countries have put in place, and the handful of places in the U.S. where common sense approaches to drug policy are gaining traction.”

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After landing on the US Marshals Top-15 Most Wanted list and being sentenced to a 25 year sentence in federal prison for a first-time, nonviolent LSD offense, Seth built a writing and journalism career from his cell block. His raw portrayals of prison life and crack era gangsters graced the pages of Don DivaHoopshype and VICE. From prison he established Gorilla Convict, a true-crime publisher and website that documents the stories that the mainstream media can’t get with books like Prison Stories and Street Legends. His story has been covered by The Washington PostThe Washington Times, and Rolling Stone.

Since his release in 2015 he’s worked hard to launch GR1ND Studios, where true crime and comics clash. GR1ND Studios is bringing variety to the comic shelf by way of the American underground. These groundbreaking graphic novels tell the true story of prohibition-era mobsters, inner-city drug lords, and suburban drug dealers. Seth is currently working out of St. Louis, Missouri, writing for The FixVICEOZY, Daily Beast, and Penthouse and moving into the world of film. Check out his first short, Easter Bunny Assassin at sethferranti.com. You can find Seth on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.