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The Long History of White Privilege in Prison Reform

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Everyone is talking about Netflix's new hit series, Orange is the New Black. The show is an adaptation of a memoir by Piper Kerman, a WASPy Smith graduate who spent over a year in federal prison for smuggling a suitcase full of drug money overseas for her heroin-dealing girlfriend a decade earlier. Both the show and the book have been praised for humanizing inmates with touching and sometimes humorous depictions of life in a women's prison and for raising awareness about the need for criminal justice reform. Kerman is forthright about the fact that being "a nice blond lady" with a high-powered defense attorney and a country club wardrobe got her just 15 months for felony charges that might have carried a much harsher penalty for someone else. She wrote the book, she said, because she wanted to present a more complete view of what prison was like and explain why it needed to change.

While Kerman does both well, she is not the first to show how middle-class whites can evoke sympathy for criminal justice reform in ways that most ex-cons cannot. In 1932, a white middle-class Brooklyn native named Robert Burns published a memoir about his daring 1922 escape from a Georgia chain gang. His book, I Am a Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang!, was turned into an Academy Award-nominated motion picture starring Paul Muni. Burns was a wandering, shell-shocked World War I vet when he was duped into participating in a robbery in Atlanta, a crime that netted the bandits just $5.81 but earned Burns six to ten years on a county chain gang. He escaped to Chicago a few months later, became a wealthy magazine publisher, and lived in peace for seven years before his past caught up with him. Burns was sent back to the chain gang but escaped again, this time to New Jersey, where he wrote his memoir in hopes of receiving a pardon.

Burns' disturbing account of poor living conditions and routine beatings of inmates generated so much public sympathy that the state of New Jersey refused to extradite him back to Georgia. In 1945, with the support of Georgia Governor Ellis Arnall, Burns was finally pardoned. The popularity of Burn's book and the film generated a heated national conversation about the brutality of chain gangs, which were used nationwide but became especially popular in the South and West around the turn of the century. In the South, especially, chain gangs had significant black majorities: In the 1920s in Georgia, blacks outnumbered whites five to one. Burns's story brought new and sympathetic perspective to the reality of chain gangs and the inequities of Progressive Era justice. As a direct result, the state of Georgia abolished chain gangs in 1945, the last state in the country to do so.

Kerman and Burns were both well-to-do whites in justice systems that disproportionately condemned poor and working-class minorities. And because of that, they were better able to defend themselves and more likely to be heard when they voiced their objections. Both also had critical financial and moral support from their friends and families, a point Kerman emphasizes in her book. In all likelihood, the memoir that saved Burns's life was ghostwritten by his brother, Vincent, an Ivy League-educated minister, author, and tireless advocate for his brother. If a major objective of the Progressive Era "reform" that legalized chain gangs was to silence and control black men -- and it was -- Burns's status as a white man allowed him to circumvent it.

Similarly, OITNB (as the show is known to legions of fans) has raised awareness about the prison reform movement precisely because the lead character is a middle-class white anomaly in a federal prison population that has swelled by nearly 800 percent since 1980, largely because of drug laws and sentencing guidelines that disproportionately hurt minorities. As OITNB series creator Jenji Kohan recently said,

Piper was my trojan horse... You're not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals. But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories... The girl next door, the cool blonde, is a very easy access point, and it's relatable for a lot of audiences and a lot of networks looking for a certain demographic. It's useful.

It's a troubling statement because it's true.

Robert Burns was no more the white savior of oppressed black men than Piper Kerman is representative of the vast majority of nonviolent offenders imprisoned in our massive carceral state. Neither ever claimed to be. And abolishing chain gangs did not eliminate discriminatory sentencing anymore than a hit television show can singlehandedly precipitate a broader-based prison reform movement.

But what both Burns and Kerman have done -- white privilege front and center -- is to remind white people that prison is not Black America's problem. What both works reveal is that many white Americans need these stories in order to acknowledge the deep systemic problems within the justice system. For this reason, both Burns and Kerman expose as much about a broader culture of racial privilege as they do about the most exploited and neglected populations behind prison walls.

And that's a good thing. National attention is as critical to the campaign for reform today as it was in Robert Burns' day. And if OITNB does it by reminding its audience that class and racial privilege haven't changed much since Burns' day, either, then all the better. That's the point.