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WATCH: Piper Kerman & Ginger Thompson Discuss “The War on Drugs, On-Screen and Off”

Ever since President Nixon declared the War on Drugs in the early 1970s, popular culture – from TV and film, to acid rock and rap – has been fascinated by it. And with good reason.

“It’s a colossal, epic fight, covered in blood, fueled by greed and corruption at the highest levels of government, led by a broad array of riveting characters,” said ProPublica senior reporter Ginger Thompson during a recent discussion at the Brooklyn Museum. “It’s hard to keep up with who’s good and who’s bad.”

But how do images in popular culture shape our views of the people and policies at the heart of the drug war? Do they contribute a sense of cynicism or spur conditions for reform? Thompson, who has written about the real-life issues extensively, explored these questions with author Piper Kerman (Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison) at the Sept. 10 event, entitled “The War on Drugs: On-Screen and Off.”

Kerman – who wrote her memoir after serving 13 months in prison for drug trafficking, and had it turned into an acclaimed television series – was an inspired choice for the discussion. She has also used her experience to advocate for reform in sentencing and prison, currently serving on the board of the Women’s Prison Association and teaching creative writing to inmates at two state prisons in Ohio.

During the program, part of an ongoing series by the Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art, the two writers discussed stories from their own experiences, and analyzed how depictions of the criminal justice system play out in television hits including the Netflix shows “Orange is the New Black” and “The Night Of,” and HBO’s “The Wire.”

Here are a few highlights from their conversation:

In writing her book, Kerman hoped to affect the way people think about the criminal justice system.

Kerman: When I thought about telling the story and writing about the stupidest, most immoral thing I ever did and the consequences of it, I thought about what difference that story might make in how people think about the over 2.3 million people who are incarcerated in this country. … I was quite certain that if somebody looked though my eyes at that one year, they would think really differently about who’s incarcerated and why, and what really happens to them when they’re incarcerated. My own experience had been so dramatically different than what I had seen reflected in popular media and in the news media.

The transition from memoir to a television series required giving up creative control, but Kerman says it was worth the risk.

Kerman: When you hand [a book] over to be adapted into some other medium – whether that be a film or a TV series or a video game – you generally relinquish creative control. For me, I believe that was a risk worth taking because even the best best-selling book reaches a much smaller number of people than filmed entertainment, particularly television.

… I don’t write the scripts for the show, and if I did they would probably be different, and the show would probably be a lot less successful. … I will tell you, I teach at a state prison in Ohio, and when season four came out, I started to get a squirrely eye from some of the staff there. Some of the provocative content of season four, which does not come directly from the book, continues to push the envelope.

Scripted television can be a significant agent for change.

Kerman: The TV show Dragnet substantially increased support for reading Miranda rights and attitudes about interrogation. … Law enforcement, unsurprisingly, wasn’t that enthusiastic about having to give Miranda rights, and the show substantially increased not only public awareness and public support for it, but also the actual actions law enforcement officers. We could look at many examples of scripted television, including half-hour sitcoms, and think that how those things have moved the needle on LGBTQ rights, civil rights, awareness around AIDS and HIV. Scripted, fictional television has affected and transformed, in some cases, public opinion around some very central and important social questions.

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