After serving 13 months in prison, Piper Kerman left hungry for two things. The first? A slice of pizza. The second? A drive to tell the diverse and often heartbreaking stories of the women she met while serving time at a federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut.
“It was really clear to me that there was a great interest in what happens behind the walls of prisons and jails,” Kerman recalls by phone. “It is a very hidden, very intentionally hidden world.”
These stories, along with her own, became the best-selling 2010 memoir Orange is the New Black: My Year in Women’s Prison. The title is familiar for fans of the Netflix original Orange is the New Black, a brutal, racy, darkly funny and highly addictive series that’s become a much-buzzed-about hit after its premiere earlier this year. Kerman speaks Nov. 18 at Sonoma State University.
Created by Jenji Kohan—producer of the controversial Showtime series Weeds—the show revolves around Piper Chapman, an affluent and privileged Park Slope denizen sentenced to 15 months for a low-level, ten-year-old drug offense. While in her early twenties, just like Kerman, Piper Chapman became romantically involved with an older, sophisticated woman who happened to work for an international drug cartel. Also like Kerman, a one-time rash decision to carry drug money across international borders ends in a money laundering and drug trafficking conviction.
The show is lauded for the racial, sexual and socio-economic diversity of its cast, while simultaneously critiqued for employing a white woman as the entry point into a marginalized prison society, a charge that Kohan responded to in an NPR interview. “In a lot of ways Piper was my Trojan Horse,” Kohan told Terri Gross on Fresh Air. “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.”
What the show does incredibly well is capture the humanity and the multi-layered narratives of America’s fastest growing prison population. The number of incarcerated women has grown 646 percent between 1980 and 2010. Most are low-level offenders who’ve made serious mistakes but pose little threat of violence, says Kerman. Also, 80 percent of criminal defendants are too poor to afford a lawyer, leading to serious questions about the inequity of access to justice and fairness in sentencing.
“We are not necessarily accustomed to seeing people who are in prison, or people who are caught up in the criminal justice system, humanized, as opposed to demonized,” says Kerman, who serves on the board of the Women’s Prison Association and speaks widely about the need for indigent defense and sentencing reform. “A recognition that each and every person who goes through that system has a complicated story, and that they are the protagonists of their own story, is really important.”
Though aspects of the show’s storyline mirror her real life, it is an adaptation instead of a bio-pic, Kerman says. For example, the fictionalized Piper ends up confronting her ex-lover (played by Laura Prepon) in prison and reigniting their affair, even as her hapless fiancé Larry waits for her at home. In real life, Kerman did run into her one-time lover Nora, but it led to no more than a friendly act of letting bygones be bygones. And though the show features illicit dalliances between prison guards and inmates (one which results in a forbidden love child), a corrupt official embezzling money from the prison, a fight to the death between Chapman and the methamphetamine-damaged, fake born-again Christian Pennsatucky, and lesbian love triangles galore, none of these events actually happened.
“Television demands an enormous level of conflict in every single episode that would be almost unreadable in a book,” explains Kerman. “It’s a really different medium. I think they work hard to create conflict in a show that is fascinating, including conflicts that didn’t really exist in my own life.”
But the main goal, to humanize a dehumanized population—a crucial issue in the United States where the prison population has grown from 500,000 in 1980 to 2.3 million today, and when the Supreme Court has ruled the overly crowded conditions in California prisons to be inhumane—is the same.
Kerman’s kept busy with speaking engagements, the buzz around the show, and life with her toddler and husband Larry Smith in Brooklyn. But overall, she feels lucky to be able to do her life’s work and use her voice to pull more people into the conversation about a dysfunctional criminal justice system. “By and large, a lot of the public recognizes that we need some significant changes and it’s time to talk about what those changes should be,” she says. “There’s less debate about whether the criminal justice system needs to be reformed, and more and more, what is the best way to fix it.”