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Can Entertainment Lead to Prison Change?

Written by Zoe Weil | Published on August 20, 2013 | Filed under Humane Connection
The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Humane Education website at http://humaneeducation.org/blog/2013/08/20/finding-purpose-prison/

In prison, those things withheld from and denied to the prisoner become precisely what he wants most of all. Eldridge Cleaver

Image courtesy of Kate Ter Haar/Flickr.

Four years ago I wrote a blog post titled “What Is Prison For?” Prison was on my mind because I’d been reflecting on jury duty and the moral challenge I faced, finding a defendant guilty of a nonviolent crime that would result in a prison sentence, rather than what I thought was a more appropriate form of restitution and rehabilitation.

Having volunteered in a women’s prison during graduate school, I had found a population composed largely of drug offenders and prostitutes locked up at taxpayers’ expense, their children left motherless for years at a time, and wondered frequently how this approach served anyone or anything. It was costly, it harmed children, it didn’t “reform” the prisoners, and certainly didn’t stop men from creating a demand for prostitutes or people from doing or selling drugs.

Fast-forward 25 years.

I’ve joined millions of viewers watching Netflix’ new series “Orange Is the New Black,” based on the memoir of Piper Kerman, imprisoned for almost a year because of her involvement in drug trafficking. Piper didn’t just serve her time and quietly return to freedom; she shared her story and then became an advocate for meaningful prison reform. Her most recent opinion piece in The New York Times offers a real solution to an unhealthy and unhelpful system.

I find it heartening when entertainment actually leads to positive social change; when we are awakened to solutions (rather than just problems) because entertainment spurs our interest and moves us deeply enough to engender reflection and engagement by both individuals and the media. We now live in the age of “edutainment,” which, at its best, sparks learning, involvement and shifts. Piper’s new notoriety may well lead to change spurred by the work of the Women’s Prison Association of New York, where she serves on the board of directors, and its JusticeHome program.

I hope so. Then those of us enjoying Netflix’ hit series, and who have turned it into a sensation, will have participated, however passively, in positive change.