800 percent. Sit with that for a moment. Back in high school math classes I learned it was impossible to have a percentage larger than 100. Yet in college I’ve seen statistic after statistic offer percentages that go far beyond the bounds of a tiny 100.
The 800 percent increase of women incarcerated in the past 30 years is one such statistic.
I didn’t know about it until Wednesday evening, when I sat in front of Piper Kerman, activist and author of Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison. She flashed the number in large black font on the screen, offering the audience a look into a hidden world our society ignores.
But I should have seen that 800 percent a lot earlier.
Why do we ignore women in conversations about incarceration? I personally had no idea the increase was so high. As Kerman said, there wasn’t a sudden female crime spree; just an increase in imprisonment for smaller crimes. That 800 percent can easily stay tucked away, even when people like Kerman pull the curtain back.
But it’s not even about how high the number is, although the staggering size of it should be noted. It’s about how little information we have on women in our country. Since coming to college, I’ve had material consistently given to me about African American males unfairly treated by our justice system. Numerous classes have ensured I’m aware of that injustice, an injustice that should be brought to everyone’s attention.
But what about women? Not one class has discussed the treatment of women, especially African American women, in the same justice system. Kerman was the first person who introduced the idea to me that half of the American population could be so unfairly affected in such astronomical ways.
If it takes a woman to go to prison, write a book, make the New York National Best Seller list, sell the rights for a TV show and be invited to an Ubben Lecture for me to hear this information, then how is the rest of society getting it? It appears to me that anyone not a fan of the TV show or Kerman’s book is simply not getting the information.
This is why Ubben Lectures are so important. They introduce to us topics and ideas we don’t hear in the classroom and offer real-life applications to what we do hear. Every student should come across female experiences at least once a semester, if not in every class. Female incarceration should grow with Kerman’s speech, not stop in its tracks.
Before hearing Kerman speak on Wednesday, I had never seen the show Orange is the New Black. I had never read the book. All I knew was that Kerman had a message and (almost) all previous Ubben Lectures had supplemented my education in positive ways. I didn’t want to miss this chance, and thank goodness I didn’t.