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Alex Beam

The Beautiful People find compassion in prison

getty images; heather hopp-bruce/globe staff

Do you know what interests me? When posh people go to jail.

Case in point: Boston-reared, Smith College-educated Piper Kerman, who has embarked on yet another publicity-gathering tour, hyping Season 2 of the over-rated TV show based on her memoir, “Orange Is the New Black.”

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Kerman served just over a year at FCI Danbury after the FBI nailed her for drug smuggling. After getting out in 2005, she not only wrote her book, but also become an advocate for national penal reform.

In February, she testified about the abuse of solitary confinement before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Earlier this month, she discussed the disparities in sentencing between black and white convicts with talk show host Diane Rehm.

“The criminal justice system is inappropriately used as a tool of control over communities of color,” Kerman said. “It’s not that the crime rates between Wall Street folks and people in poor neighborhoods are as wildly disproportionate as the prison population would lead you to believe . . . We have this expectation that all Americans will be equal before the law, and that simply is not borne out by the facts.”

I’m not sure the odious Canadian media baron Conrad Black shares Ms. Kerman’s assessment of Wall Street baddies, but the large-living wheeler-dealer also landed in prison, for two years and change on initial charges of wire fraud and obstruction of justice. Like Kerman, Black was a model prisoner, teaching American history and providing job counseling to the many inmates he befriended behind bars.

In interviews and in a memoir, Black, who is as sharp as a prison shiv, argued articulately for an end to wasteful mandatory sentencing, for a more serious commitment to prison education, and for relaxing the rules for inmates’ visiting rights. “The proposal to have glass barriers between visitors and inmates at all times, in particular, is sadistic and dehumanizing,” he told Canada’s National Post. “It should never be the objective of the state to shatter the family and personal life of prisoners.”

I want to be clear: Whatever I think about Kerman and Black as wayward souls, I celebrate their ability to tell us in plain language what is going on inside American prisons. They are, in a sense, accidental prisoners; their natural milieu is what passes for civilized society. But, unlike think-tank “experts” and the random do-gooders who ventilate about penal policies, Kerman and Black are genuine expert witnesses when it comes to incarceration.

And then there is Martha Stewart.

Possibly the easiest person to lampoon in the firmament of American celebrity is Stewart, whose five-month prison stay in West Virginia brought out the best in her. Like Kerman and Black, she clearly empathized with inmates less fortunate than she and spoke out on their behalf when she had the chance.

In a Christmas 2004 message posted on her personal website, Stewart implored her fans to think of women behind bars, “who have been here for years — devoid of care, devoid of love, devoid of family. I beseech you all to think about these women — to encourage the American people to ask for reforms, both in sentencing guidelines, in length of incarceration for nonviolent first-time offenders, and for those involved in drug-taking.

“There is no real help, no real program to rehabilitate, no programs to educate, no way to be prepared for life ‘out there’ where each person will ultimately find herself,” Stewart added, “many with no skills and no preparation for living.”

The Beautiful People seem to find a special voice in prison: clear, caring, empathetic. Maybe we should lock them up more often.

Globe contributor Alex Beam is the author of “American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church.”
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