Talking prison with Piper Kerman, the bestselling author of Orange Is the New Black


Watching the opening of the hit Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, you see the hardened faces of women who have done time. Look closely and one face belongs to someone fans know very well (if only through the character created to portray her): Piper Chapman. This is a tall, blonde, 30-something incarcerated for a drug-related crime she committed in her 20s. In real life, that face belongs to Piper Kerman, author of the New York Times bestseller that inspired the show. Kerman was a tall, blonde, 30-something graduate of Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, an elite women’s liberal arts college. She
was sentenced to serve 15 months in the Federal Correctional Institution
in Danbury, Connecticut, for money laundering, a crime she committed more than a decade earlier during her brief involvement in an international drug-trafficking ring.

Then, Kerman was a restless 23-year-old, seeking adventure and anything besides her life in idyllic New England. As she recalls, she came from a stable, safe household and received a great education.

“Yet, I screwed up,” she says. “Because we all screw up-some of us more spectacularly than others.”

As they tend to do, Kerman’s screw-up came back to bite her. Incarceration turned her life upside down and introduced her to an institution full of women that had such a strong impact on her that she wanted the world to know about them. So she decided to write their story.

“I hoped someone would read the book and think about what really happens behind the walls of the prison system,” she says. “The last thing I expected from the other women was kindness. They schooled me and helped me survive in ways great and small, and I am eternally grateful. I left a changed person.”

Today, Kerman is in her mid-40s, now a wife and mother. As a bestselling author and prison reform advocate, she teaches non-fiction writing at men’s and women’s correctional facilities in Ohio. As a public speaker, she travels around the country, often speaking to students in order to encourage
them to learn from her mistakes, make the right choices, and be aware of the opportunities awarded to them. She discusses the prominent themes
in her book: race, class, gender, power, friendship and empathy. And she speaks to supporters of organizations like San Diego’s Second Chance about the critical need in this country-the worst in the world for high rates of incarceration-to shift its focus from one of imprisonment to one of assistance, one that invests in support systems instead of the prison system.

“The institutions with bars are not the ones that keep us safe,” she says.
“We need public schools, community centers. The communities that are cut off from these institutions are the ones in which we see an overreliance on the criminal justice system.”

As fans prepare for the fourth season of Orange Is the New Black this spring, Kerman, who serves as a consultant on the show, is also looking forward to what happens next. While she says she doesn’t look at the character of Piper and see herself, she says, “I do think everyone has a hero and a villain inside them, and I think it’s OK for Piper to be a villain for a while.” Still, Kerman reminds us: “It’s not a biopic and it’s not a documentary. It’s a show about friendship and empathy, and a powerful reminder that the 2.3 million people in prison in the United States are not those people, they are us people.”