The runaway success of Orange is the New Black has made prison policy the hot watercooler conversation topic. When Piper Kerman, who wrote the book on which the series is based, along with show stars Kate Mulgrew, Laverne Cox, and Uzo Aduba, visited Melissa Harris-Perry on Sunday, everyone agreed that personalizing the experience of the thousands of men and women dealing with the criminal justice system is the first step to changing it.
"Statistics are overwhelming and somewhat meaningless...but stories stick in your gut," Kerman said of the power of television.
At a time when overcrowding in California has prompted federal courts to order that 10,000 prisoners be released, and when the public defender system is so overburdened that people often take plea deals to avoid risking decades-long sentences, the penal system touches the lives of millions of Americans.
In the wake of budget cuts and tough of crime legislation, as Aduba put it, the system looks to poor and minority Americans like it is "prepared to take every piece of your humanity away from you."
Laverne Cox, the first trans woman to have a major role on a mainstream TV show, brought up the real life case of CeCe McDonald as an example of how the prison system endangers and punishes trans people.
McDonald was sentenced to 41 months in prison for manslaughter after she killed a man who had been yelling transphobic and racial slurs at her.
"The system is corrupt" because of the way it treats trans people," Cox said. "'Stand Your Ground' doesn't apply to some bodies."