Protesters Interrupt Piper Kerman's Talk on Incarceration, Education | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Protesters Interrupt Piper Kerman's Talk on Incarceration, Education

Author Piper Kerman sat on a prison education panel on Aug. 23, 2018, saying America needs to rethink its historic obsession with harsh punishment. She defended protesters who interrupted the panel in its second hour supporting a national prison strike.

Author Piper Kerman sat on a prison education panel on Aug. 23, 2018, saying America needs to rethink its historic obsession with harsh punishment. She defended protesters who interrupted the panel in its second hour supporting a national prison strike. Photo by Greater Jackson Art Council

Piper Kerman spent several hours in the Old Capitol Inn Thursday first talking about her life and her bestselling memoir about her year in a federal women's prison, "Orange is the New Black." Soon after the luncheon, she joined a panel on "Correcting Corrections: A Deep Dive on Prison Education" that was interrupted in the middle by protesters supporting a prison strike in the state's prisons.

The mood of the panel, moderated by 5th U.S. Court of Appeals Judge James E. Graves, was somber as the participants talked about the link between a lack of education, dropping out of high school, and the likelihood of being incarcerated. Kerman, who attended Smith College in Massachusetts in the 1990s, talked about how her education, something she emphasized cannot be taken away in a strip search, helped her to cope with her sentence. She now teaches at a women's prison in Ohio.

"It's not just about the facts—it's about the habits of mind," Kerman said, adding that her critical thinking skills and ability to "seek objectivity around information and try to put that in place as opposed to being completely reactive," helped her cope.

Betty Lou Jones of the Mississippi Parole Board painted a grim picture of just how a lack of education manifests in the courtroom.

"The fact that some inmates when they are sentenced haven't an idea of the terminology or the language, and have no ability to incorporate that into their thinking, (and) the inability for them to have a conversation because of the lack of language skills is devastating," Jones said.

Jones added that many in the system have issues talking to their attorneys, and often have low self-esteem because they feel embarrassed about not being able to speak for themselves. She said denying prisoners education is equivalent to a death sentence.

"It is heartbreaking to feel that they are in a situation where they are unable to fend for themselves in a situation as we do on a normal basis," she added.

Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Pelecia Hall said that MDOC ends up being the front line for addressing mental health, alcohol and drug issues, and also education. The state prison system does have some education programs, but Hall said they need more funding and tutors.

Judge Keith Starrett of the Southern District of Mississippi has been a state judge for 12.5 years and a federal judge for 13 years. He said he sentenced more than 10,000 people, and many do not have a substantial education.

"A common thread that goes through a lot of people this end up in prison is a lack of an adequate education. ... Most of them do not have an education at all," he said. "The pipeline from classrooms to prison is real."

Carol Anderson, the prison education director of the Mississippi Humanities Council, was also on the panel.

'Get Those People Out of Here'

Near the cusp of the panel's second hour, a group of protesters barged into the overly air-conditioned room, listing the 10 demands of the Nationwide Prison Strike, running from Aug 21-Sept 9.

The audience stirred, but sat somewhat quietly as a fired-up protester walked toward the stage announcing the exigencies, while others passed out handouts. He got to the ninth demand when Judge Graves interrupted.

"Sir, how long is your list?" Graves asked. "We are not going to listen to the entire list..."

"We're going to do it all over again," another protester yelled over Graves.

The first man finished the final demand on the list. Kerman leaned in, saying nothing, but watching on.

"Get those people out of here," a woman in the audience said.

"Call law enforcement," another said.

Several people forcibly removed the protesters who did not go quietly. After firing off more statistics about the justice system, and accusing the room of not doing anything to help improve prisons, the group left out the back door of the inn. A hotel manager stood on the back steps and saw that they left the grounds as she called police, describing the group of less than a dozen as both "black and white."

Some white women from the audience who had left were fearful to walk to their cars, one asking a black man with a severe limp to escort her across the street although her car was in plain sight.

"Oh, you're good ma'am," he said to her as he walked to the JATRAN bus stop nearby.



'We Do Not Want Anyone to Be Arrested'

Back inside, Kerman offered words in support of the First Amendment and put the strike into perspective.

"There is a national prison strike that is taking place in many prisons all over this country, and these folks came to talk about it," Kerman said, her words met with sporadic applause. "... But we do not want anyone to be arrested."

"I guess I would emphasize that for prisoners to go on strike is a very hard thing for them to do," she added.

Kerman, in some of her final remarks on the panel, talked about the importance of calling into question America's historical relationship with harsh punishments that continue today in the form of mass incarceration, the death penalty and long sentences for youth.

"We cannot deny the fact that the American tolerance and commitment to harsh punishment has a profound connection to our history, which includes chattel slavery and the forced removal of Native Americans. That's where our tolerance and even embrace of harsh punishment comes from. Harsh punishment was an essential tool to operate those systems...."

"We have to be honest about our history, and we have to ask ourselves how we can possibly function the modern world and in a modern democracy without divesting ourselves of our commitment to that harsh punishment. I think that's the starting ground," she added.

Email city reporter Ko Bragg at ko@jacksonfreepress.com. Read related coverage at jfp.ms/prisons and a JFP interview with Piper Kerman here.

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