In a piece for Casey Research I explore the idea that America’s incarceration nation may have peaked. Instead of throwing thousands behind bars for marijuana infractions, voters in bankrupt states will likely choose to legalize pot and start taxing the stuff.

At the christmas party for the local bar association last night I spoke with an assistant DA who admitted that even in Alabama the views toward marijuana are changing.  It can’t happen soon enough.

A read of Piper Kerman’s book Orange is the New Black would soften even the most dark hearted law and order zealot. The circumstances of Kerman’s imprisonment are so absurd it calls into question what the prison system exists for.

Ms. Kerman was anything but a dangerous person to society. In fact she’d lived free to no one’s detriment for a decade after being caught up in the logistics of a drug trade. She had gone on with her life. Others she had associated with had stayed in the business, were arrested, and she was named by a co-defendant in exchange for a deal of less time.

Everyone agreed Piper Kerman should serve little or no time after the fact as it was. But mandatory sentencing laws forced her to make a deal and put her in Danbury (mostly) for 15 months.  During that time Martha Stewart was convicted and sentenced and there was much speculation at Danbury as to whether the notorious outlaw of the kitchen and insider stock sales would join them.

The authorities at the FCI Danbury located in the Connecticut city of the same name, hung out the ‘no vacancy’ sign and La Stewart was sent to FPC Alderson. The Danbury population shrunk during this time as administrators worked to steer Stewart’s assignment away. Of course, after she was assigned, Kerman and the other inmates experienced an influx of new prisoners which upset the balance of day-to-day life.  And what Kerman makes clear in her story is there is a routine to prison that makes it bearable.

What struck me about the author’s account of life behind bars is that in that very abnormal setting, people adjust and live the most normal lives they can. These women of very diverse backgrounds, ages, and prior circumstances are able to, not just co-exist under one roof so-to-speak, but in some cases get along well enough to become close life-long friends.

Kerman’s lawyer told her before she went in that the hardest thing about prison would be “the chickenshit rules enforced by the chickenshit people.” That sums up all of life. But prison puts the cop on the beat right in your face all of the time; To act out his or her biases and mental problems. To the authorities prisoners are all the same. They lose their name and become a number: #11187–424 in the case of Kerman.

The prison staff holds great power over the inmates by being able to grant and withhold simple privileges. The prison population is treated as a homogeneous mass of ill-wired (less-than) humanity. But, unlike the Netflix series based on the book, conflicts with other prisoners seem to be few, while the author recounts an amazing number of unsolicited acts of kindness.

We’re not supposed to think of the people the government has locked away as parents or friends or family members. They must be bad people we’re told. To be put out of sight and out of mind. As Clarence Darrow points out in his book Resist Not Evil, The state ensures that we don’t get to know the perpetrators. These men and women (many of whom are moms and dads) become less like people we might like or identify with. That makes it easy for the public to allow the state to judge, convict, and punish.

The author points out 80 percent of women in prison have children. So it makes sense that “Mother’s Day was off the chain at the Camp,” writes Kerman.

But besides the biological mother-daughter relations that exist, plenty of older prisoners adopt young inmates to provide guidance. The woman who ran the cafeteria–Pop– was Piper’s “mother” and had that role for many others. Pop had black “daughters” who called her Mama, while her white daughters called her Pop.

Kerman makes the heartbreaking observation that many of these women are locked away for years for non-violent offenses, separated from their children. Kerman writes, “Criminal masterminds they are not,” most lacked even a high school education.

After eleven months in Danbury the author is transported via Con Air through Oklahoma City on her way to testify in Chicago.  “Con Air is like the layer cake of the prison system. Every sort of prisoner is represented…” Con Air, referred to by prisoners as ‘diesel therapy,’ is not an express, but the prison equivalent of a milk run.

Despite the grueling ride prisoners aren’t even given water so Piper was instructed to dab vaseline behind her ears so that she could keep her lips from cracking.

The Chicago Metropolitan Correctional Center was the worst of it all and to make matters worse, Kerman is reunited with her co-defendants. However, the results are surprising and nothing like the Netflix show. And while Kerman had little time left on her sentence she wanted to return to normalcy of Danbury and hoped for a grand send off with her friends.

At the back of Orange is the New Black the author lists and provides descriptions of various organizations working to reform the justice system.  Kerman’s book makes it clear our justice system has nothing to do with justice but is instead only interested in punishment.

Darrow pointed out that it is the state that is the violent aggressor.  And a violent institution must have armies, functionaries, and civil governments to punish those who offend.

Despite the vengeance and violence the government perpetrates with it prisons, humanity still manages to break out.  The human spirit of orange eclipses the bleakness of the state’s black.

 This piece originally appeared at