We gotta get outta this place: Piper Kerman at TEDxMarionCorrectionalSalon
Articles,  Blog

We gotta get outta this place: Piper Kerman at TEDxMarionCorrectionalSalon


Translator: Bob Prottas
Reviewer: Ariana Bleau Lugo When people first meet me, they do not necessarily leap to the conclusion ex-con. They may be missing the neck tattoo. They may assume wife, mother, professional, e-bay addict. All of these things are also true.
(Laughter) I am part of a large segment
of our criminal justice system: Non-violent drug offender. At the age of 34, I was sent to prison for a drug crime that I committed
when I was 23. On my first day,
the first hour of my incarceration, I found myself alone in a holding cell at the Federal Correctional Institution
in Danbury, Connecticut, on the wrong side of the biggest, most vicious, triple layer razor wire fence
I had ever seen in my life. And what I was thinking was I have got to get out of this place. I did most of my time
in a low security federal prison camp. Now in any prison, what you will find is people of every age race, religion, walk of life, many walks of life. And they are thrown together
in very, very tight quarters, in an environment
that is really designed for scarcity. And you must figure out how you’re going to get along. And you, individually, have got to figure out where do I fit in. And if you refuse to do that, your time will be very hard indeed. So people often ask me, What did you learn
from being sent to prison? Well, from the prison system I learned how to mix concrete. I learned how to handle a 14-foot extension ladder by myself. I learned how to solder. I can’t say that I have used any of these skills since I came home. (Laughter) But I am still very, very handy
with electrical work which, believe me, my husband really appreciates. (Laughter) More important lessons I learned from the many women
that I was doing time with. How to deal with a correctional officer. What kinds of questions are and are not acceptable to ask behind bars. And really, really practical Spanish which could help prevent electrocution and allow you to learn
really valuable stuff like prison recipes. And I mastered the recipe
for prison cheesecake. So very, very practical pointers here. But these things were all teaching me the one thing
that everyone learns in prison. which is how to be a prisoner. And you have to learn that
if you’re going to survive. But the most valuable lessons
that I learned where from my friends in prison. And I learned by watching them
and by listening to their stories. And prisoners tell pretty great stories. So from my bunky
I learned how to do the time instead of letting it do you. And she was finishing up 8 years
with great diginity. From my prison Mama who was called “Pop”, I learned how to find —
how to gain power and agency in a place that is designed
to take it away. From my young neighbor Pompom, I learned the heartbreaking truth
that for some women life in prison is safer
than life on the outside. And from my friends Nina and Allie, I learned about the ravages of addiction. And I recognized my own responsibility in the harm caused to others. I am so grateful to those women and I carry those lessons with me
every single day of my life. After 11 months, I really felt like I was in the groove. I really knew how to do time. Then what I found,
just as I was getting my sea legs was that I was gone. Chain around my waist. Wrists shackled to my waist. Ankles chained together. And I was with hundreds and hundreds of other men and women all wearing shackles just like mine. I got shipped on the federal air lift. Now some people think
that ConAir is just a movie. It’s real. And on that jumbo jet with hundreds and hundreds of men and a small handful of women the sound of rattling chains
was a constant. And on that flight
you could see a cross section of our prison system. Far too many black and brown men. People young and very old. And there were people
from all walks of life on that plane. I watched a man shuffling up the aisle of the plane
in his shackles. Gray hair. Right behind him was a much younger man, the spitting image of him. So obviously, his son. That plane took me to a high security facility in Chicago. And after months and months
of working prison construction out of doors every single day, I suddenly found myself in a locked unit. No way out of that place. And it was claustraphobic. It was surprisingly chaotic. There were a lot of women there who were struggling with serious,
serious mental illness. And I was not homesick
for the outside world. I missed the other prision. It was here that I confronted my past. Quite literally, in the form
of my co-defendant, my ex-lover who had introduced me to crime more than a decade before. We were both bunked in a 6-woman cell. And day in and day out we had to deal with each other. And it was there that I learned the most important lesson, which was to let go of blame for her
or for anyone else about where I was. I made my own choices. I put myself in that terrible place. The day came that she got shipped out
again on a federal air lift. Back to prison to do more time. I was getting released the next week. We said goodbye
and I went back to my bunk and I put a blanket over my head
and I cried. I was overcome by emotion. I started out wanting to kick her ass. And I reached a point where I recognized our shared fate and our shared humanity
in that terrible, terrible place. America locks up more of its people than any other nation in the world,
by far. In about 1980, we had approximately
500,000 people in prison. And now we have 2.3 million locked up. Three ways that we got there. We send people to prison now
who in the past we would never have put there. Like most of the women
that I did time with. Second, we send people to prison for much longer sentences
than in the past. Including for non-violent offenses. And finally, we are very quick
to send people back to prison, sometimes for low level probation
and parole violations. Step behind the walls of our prison system and you will find that that is where
our government puts people, not only people who are violent
and dangerous, but also people who are inconvenient. People who are mentally ill. People who are addicts. People who are shut out
of the new economy. And this needs to change
because as a nation we are in a bad place
when it comes to incarceration. I think often of the federal air lift. I think about those hundreds
of men and woman and the things that I have
in common with them. And some of those things are because of our shared experience
of prison. But each and every single one of us
is someone’s child and most of us are someone’s
parents or brother or sister. And every single one
of those men and women on those planes had a story. Their own life story and also a story
about the criminal justice system. And those stories take place
in our streets and in our schools. Take place in our courtrooms,
behind the walls of prisons and jails, and back out on the streets. And there are 700,000 people
coming home from prison and jail every single year in this country. I ask you if you have a story from behind prison walls, I want you to share it. Because when people know the real stories of real people
then they will recognize that our incarceration mania
is a real problem. And they will get
to the same spot that I was in on that very first day
of my own incarceration. They will say,
“We gotta get out of this place.” Thank you. (Applause)

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