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The Real Story From the Real Piper of Orange is the New Black

AlterNet talks with Piper Kerman, whose personal story is behind the hit series on Netflix about serving time in America.

Weeds creator Jenji Kohan’s new Netflix series Orange Is the New Black became an instant hit this summer, due at least in part to the show’s unique premise: A dramatic comedy set inside a female minimum security prison. Orange brings incarcerated women into America’s living rooms, where viewers embrace the characters as people with strengths and flaws—a stunning difference from the portrayal of prisoners in shows like Lock Up.

Told from the perspective of Piper Chapman, an upper-middle-class white woman thrust into a world typically reserved for the less privileged, Orange presents a racially diverse, nearly all-female cast that explores the complexity of female characters rarely seen on television. When Chapman is sentenced to 15 months in federal prison for a crime she committed a decade earlier—delivering money for an international drug cartel—she finds herself part of an underclass "nice blonde ladies" like herself are usually exempt from. Using Chapman’s (often nauseatingly annoying) privilege as a reference point, the show reveals the blurred lines between choice and chance, raising questions about notions of justice in America.

Kristen Gwynne caught up with the real Piper Chapman—Piper Kerman, author of the 2010 memoir Orange Is the New Black, on which the show is based—to learn more about her experiences and the show’s portrayal of reality behind bars.

Kristen Gwynne: So, why did you write the memoir in the first place?

Piper Kerman: I came home from prison in 2005 and what I found was that practically every single person I knew wanted to hear about the experience in as much detail as I was willing to describe. I am an upper-middle-class person, and a lot of people that I know didn’t know anything about the prison system. You’d be surprised that, once you get people talking about something that is generally really shameful, more people have experience with the criminal justice system than people assume. But I just found that folks had a pretty voracious curiosity. I firmly believed that talking about my own experience would provide an inroad to people who might not otherwise pick up a book about the criminal justice system at all.

KG: Do you think writing from the perspective of a middle-class white women makes it easier for people from a similar background to understand a criminal justice system that does not target them or their communities?

PK: That’s possible. Certainly, I do believe it probably makes it more likely for them to imagine themselves in a person’s shoes, going through the system.

KG: Are white Americans still not ready to listen directly to the stories of women of color?

PK: I don’t really know the answer to that. I think the criminal justice system in this country is so huge and sprawling that it is very important to have a multitude of voices talking about the impact of that system on human beings. And particularly when you start thinking about all the segments of the criminal justice system—policing, the courts, corrections—it is an enormous, enormous government system affecting millions of lives, and there are a lot of different people’s stories to be told.

KG: You’ve said women tend to disappear into the “rabbit hole” of incarceration, where they become nearly invisible to free society. How does the show further your goal of facilitating a conversation about the criminal justice system?

PK: What I hoped to do with the book—and what made me really happy about the show when I first saw it—was to describe prison in a way different from what people are already assuming. “Who is in prison?” is an important question. People don’t think about women when they think about prisons and prisoners. I wanted to show that “who,” first of all, in a broader and more multifaceted sense, and also “why?” What are the pathways, either chosen or imposed, that put people in the criminal justice system, and what really happens to them there? What really happens in the conditions of confinement?

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