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Sell-out crowd gathers to hear Orange is the New Black author discuss prison reform

| By Stephanie Weaver
Piper Kerman
Piper Kerman signed copies of her memoir for students and alumni. (Photo by Brigid Hamilton)

Students, faculty, and alumni packed McGuire Hall on Tuesday, Oct. 7, to hear Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison, deliver the 24th Sister Cleophas Costello Lecture.

Kerman discussed her experiences while in women’s prison, her work to reform the system, and the Netflix comedy-drama adaptation of her memoir. But no sneak peeks of season three, Kerman joked with the audience.

After graduating from Smith College, Kerman had no next step. The recent graduate soon found herself involved in drug trafficking, traveling around the world with her lover, Nora.

“I thought I was having a great adventure. I was actually in a great deal of trouble,” Kerman said.

Kerman ended the relationship, got her life back on track, and put her past behind her. But 10 years later, she found herself having to serve time in prison for her small role in the drug crime. Her memoir – honest and humorous – tells the story of her year spent in the Danbury Correctional Facility in Danbury, Conn., and addresses several issues women in prison face.

After her release in 2005, Kerman decided to use the time she spent incarcerated to help others. She serves on the board of the Woman’s Prison Association and has been called as a witness by the U.S Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights to testify on solitary confinement and women prisoners.    

The Netflix comedy-drama, created by Jenji Kohan, premiered in July 2013 and won three Emmys for its inaugural season. The second season of the show was released June 2014. No release date has been set for season three.

The show is merely an adaptation of her memoir, Kerman explained during her lecture. Unlike the show’s main character, Piper Chapman, Kerman avoids conflict, has an extremely supportive family, and married her boyfriend, Larry.

When asked how her family felt about their portrayal on the show, Kerman said they have been good sports, especially Larry, who is played by actor Jason Biggs.

“It helps that he really loves Jason Biggs,” she laughed.

But if she could take back her days smuggling money to foreign countries, she would, she said.  

And the food she missed most while in prison? Chinese food.

When Rachael Degnan, ’15, heard that Kerman would speak at Loyola, she immediately thought of the Netflix series. Prior to attending the lecture, she watched Kerman’s TED talk on life in prison– which left her wanting to know more about Kerman’s work on prison reform.

Degnan wasn’t alone.

Caroline Slim, ’09, MBA ’14, and guest, Emily Dow, were excited to hear about Kerman’s life post-book and show, including her work in prison reform. Both were impressed by Kerman’s activism, using her rise as a media icon to help her with her mission.

“It’s exciting and relevant. I knew I wanted to attend,” Slim said.

Slim said it’s important to continue to have lectures that raise these types of social reform issues.

“When you’re here, you’re in your own academic bubble,” she said. “You’re not realizing things are happening outside of classes.”

And it’s important for a Jesuit university to show interest in social justice, said Lindsey Rennie, ’15.

“It shows we’re involved and invested in more than ourselves.”

After her lecture, Kerman signed her memoir for students and alumni. Additional resources including prevention and advocacy programs, can be found here: https://www.loyola.edu/join-us/cleophas.

More information about the Sister Cleophas Costello Lecture is available here: https://www.loyola.edu/join-us/cleophas/about.

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