Civil Liberties

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?

A minimum security women’s prison in the federal system is very different from a high security men’s state prison. There are of course similarities in terms of state law, or what it is like to have your liberty taking away for any prisoner, but then there are really broad differences in the largest in the world, the largest ever criminal justice system.

KG: You wrote about many women coming from poor, less educated communities where prison is a revolving door. Who did you meet, and why were they there?

PK: I met hundreds and hundreds of women of all ages and all races and many religions. My perception is that the vast majority of women were there for drug offenses: not all of them, but a huge percentage of them. Of course, people don’t necessarily talk about their offenses in detail, so there is some degree of assumption, but the statistics certainly bear that out. What we also know is that women are very rarely, or much less likely, to be incarcerated for crimes of violence, and that was certainly true of most of the women who I did my time with.

KG: Many people may imagine the incarcerated population to be full of hardened, dangerous criminals who need to be locked away. Did you feel that way?

PK: I really hesitate to judge whether other people have to be in prison, but for sure, the overwhelming number of women I was in prison with were in no way, shape, or form dangerous by any stretch of the imaginon. For the majority of women I met in prison, you can’t imagine more ordinary women—you know, a lot of moms, but just everyday people, not “career criminals” in that classic sense.

Particularly, when I think about the unit I lived in in Danbury [“Litchfield” on the show], I just think of this incredible waste of time, human potential, and certainly taxpayer money. Those women are not dangerous and to make the argument that they pose some kind of dire threat to society...it’s ludicrous to me.

KG: You wrote a lot about motherhood in your book, including your breakdown at the end of Children’s Day at Danbury. What was it like for women who were moms?

PK: The majority of women locked up in the system are moms, and the majority of them are moms of minor children. It’s one thing to be the mother of a grown child. That’s a hard situation. But a young child—I just think it’s devastating. I was not a mom when I was prison. I am now. Those women worry so much about their kids, and sometimes their kids are being protected and provided for, and sometimes—I mean, I know women whose kids were in the foster care system, and they were crazy with worry about those kids, and very powerless to do anything for them.

KG: In the television show, we see a birth in prison, while in your book, you mention that incarcerated women are shackled during labor. What was going through pregnancy and labor while incarcerated like for women you were locked up with?

PK: You should talk to Tina Reynolds about what it's really like because she went through that experience. She’s wonderful. Unfortunately, she had a child in prison and was subject to shackling. It’s just brutal and inhumane and disgusting what happens to so many women who are going through the process of pregnancy and childbirth in prisons and jails. More states are beginning to ban the process, but a wide majority of states still allow it. When you talk about that with people outside of the country, they are stunned that we allow the practice. It’s so irrational and indefensible.

What I did not experience myself but what I witnessed—there were pregnant women in every facility I was in—was that the process of pregnancy is one that is very precious and important, and the care of those women and the care of their babies when those babies arrive is something that should take place outside of the criminal justice system. The criminal justice system is not equipped in any way to provide prenatal or postnatal care. Women I saw got prenatal vitamins—they were actually required to go to more doctor’s appointments—but it’s nothing like most women living on the outside would expect to do to take care of their own babies. It’s completely different, and those women really worry.

KG: The show is obviously a lighter version of life in prison. What liberties were taken in regards to characters or general issues of incarceration?

PK: The show is an adaptation of the book, and I think it was a thoughtful choice by Jenji and by her team not to do this really faithful sort of biopic or docudrama. I don’t think that would’ve worked very well. So all of the characters are adapted, even some of the characters drawn in some way from the book. And of course many characters are completely fictional and have nothing to do with my experience at all.

KG: Which characters were inspired by real women?

PK: Sophia Burset is a good example. There was a transgender women incarcerated with me in Danbury, and she is depicted in the book. Sophia is also a transgender African American woman, but there the similarities kind of end. I’m really thrilled they decided to have a transgender character. She is fantastic and fascinating, and reveals a whole other layer of questions about who is incarcerated and what happens to them while they’re incarcerated. The person who I knew was denied her hormones, and it was very difficult for her, so that plotline is accurate.

KG: Is the character of Sister Ingalls—the nun who is a protester—close to reality?

PK: Sure, fairly close, yeah, though the show’s character of course is quite different than Sister Ardeth Platte, who gave me permission to use her real name in the book. But yeah, that’s a good example. Those folks are closely drawn.

KG: In your book, you write about encountering other political prisoners, particularly those arrested for protesting the School of Americas.  

PK: There are many political prisoners in America, particularly in the federal system. That’s where they generally all go. Often, they were serving really short sentences if they were first-time offenders, like a 90-day sentence, which is sort of ridiculous on some level, but a number of those folks had short sentences, like 90 days or six months.

Someone like Ardeth Platte was considered a repeat offender because she had committed many protests of conscience, so she was serving, if my memory is correct from the book, close to four years, as were the two other nuns she was arrested with.

KG: Another plotline that seemed close to reality is Taystee’s return to prison.

PK: The reentry story? Yeah, I think that reentry story is too frequently true. Folks are released from prison, and nothing has happened during their confinement to make it more possible for them to change their lives.

KG: So, there’s no rehabilitation?

PK: No rehabilitation. I think a person who works in corrections would answer the question honestly and say, “That’s not my job.” The American prison and jail systems don’t work toward rehabilitation. They are strictly there for confinement. There is nothing that takes place during your confinement that will make it more feasible for you to change your life. And folks are truly sometimes dumped on the street. Sometimes they go into halfway houses, and some halfway houses are pretty horrible themselves, as is seen in recent coverage of them in New Jersey.  The way they are run is generally terrible.

And then folks go home to their communities, which is a happy thing, but nothing has necessarily transpired in the course of term of confinement that makes them more able to do things differently when they get home. In fact, having a felony conviction presents all kinds of incredibly formidable barriers to being able to live a legal life, whether you’re talking about blocked access to housing, blocked access to employment, or blocked access to education because you can’t get a Pell grant. There are many formal policy barriers to folks coming home safely and successfully.

KG: In the show, Taystee says she still owes prison fees. Can you explain that?

PK: At least in my experience, fees and fines are part of your sentence, so for someone like me, middle class, those fees and fines were not onerous to pay. In the federal system, you’re supposed to serve 85% of your sentence. If you are unable to pay your fines, you may lose that “good time” and be forced to serve your entire sentence. And if you haven’t been able to pay those fees and fines during the time you served your sentence, yes, you will continue to owe the federal government those fees and fines. Those can be relatively low, but it sort of depends on what your sentencing judge sets out.

KG: In the show, we see a lot of lesbian sex and relationships. How realistic is the show’s portrayal?

PK: No matter what the rules of the prison are, people form obviously literal human contact, and in some case, emotional attachments to each other. People are sexual beings, and so putting them in prison doesn’t make that go away. There’s definitely people who are lesbians or bisexuals in the street, and obviously if they come to prison, are still lesbians or bisexual. Then, there may be women who never have been in a setting where that’s even plausible.

KG: What about rape and sexual assault?  

PK: I never saw any relationship between two prisoners that appeared to be coercive to me at all during the time I was in prison. Obviously, rape in prison is an epidemic and horrifying problem. The PREA standards [National Standards to Prevent, Detect, and Respond to Prison Rape] are not enforced and not even formally adopted in a lot of facilities.

KG: What about the plotline surrounding Daya Diaz, the inmate in an apparently consensual relationship with a corrections officer?  

PK: It’s impossible for me to imagine a less equal relationship than between a prisoner and a staffer, so the dynamics of that kind of sexual relationship or sexual contact to me always implies coercion. I never witnessed anything that horrifying with my own eyes, but you hear horrible stories, and I definitely knew a number of women who described having had sexual contact with guards.

KG: Was the prison staff as homophobic as the warden in the show?

PK: I only reflect upon my own experience, so I definitely saw a lot of homophobia from the prison staff directed at prisoners and also towards each other in sort of an unfettered or unchecked way. No one is getting in trouble in prison for being homophobic, let’s put it that way.

KG: In your book, you wonder if the corrections officers connect their careers to the suffering of inmates. How did the staff treat prisoners at Danbury?

PK: What I saw was a small handful of guards who really considered it their right and in some cases even, perversely, their duty to be incredibly abusive toward prisoners in a variety of ways.That’s for the minority of folks I saw, but you know one prison guard can make hundreds of hundreds of prisoners' lives miserable. They have that much power.

The vast majority of folks are just trying to get through the day. It’s not a pleasant job, not necessarily a job they’re psyched to be at. Prisons are dehumanizing to the people who work in them as well as the people who are [incarcerated] in them. There is also small number of guards or staff who are invested in their work or in prisoners’ lives in some way, and those folks are really refreshing.

KG: In the show, we see your character and other inmates participate in prison labor. What was work behind bars like?

PK: I was in prison from 2004 to 2005, and the pay range for most of us was between 14 cents an hour at the low end of the pay grade, and up to close to a dollar. There were some folks who would be tapped to work in UNICOR, which is a prison company within the federal system, and they received a higher pay grade. Those were very desirable jobs because many women I was with in prison had little to no resources coming in. Outside, they came from poor communities and poor families, so that money is really important. That’s their toothpaste. That’s their deodorant or shampoo.

KG: Because commissary is so expensive?

PK: Things may not even be that expensive, but the prison isn’t giving you shampoo. If you want toothpaste you have to be able to buy it. If you want to be able to make a phone call to your kids, you have to have money in your commissary account. If you want to buy stamps, you have to have money in your commissary account. So that work is no joke. What we know is that lots of prisons also sort of rent out their prisoners as paid labor, or profit in other ways from the work of prisoners. And certainly none of these facilities would function without the labor of prisoners, particularly minimum security ones.

KG: The FCC recently limited the price of prison phone calls (reportedly as high as $.90 per minute) to no more than $.21 per minute. How important is that to inmates?

PK: It’s an incredibly big deal. When you think about how staggeringly expensive those phone calls are for so many families, particularly as the cost of telecommunication has gotten lower and lower for ordinary consumers, it is outrageous. Really outrageous. To see the FCC really take action on this, with the leadership of Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), is very welcome. It was a long fight—advocates, both criminal justice advocates and media justice advocates, have been fighting for a very long time, so that is a lot of work finally realized.

KG: What other criminal justice reform issues are you paying attention to right now?  

PK: I’m really happy to see how much attention the hunger strike has provoked around solitary confinement and its endemic abuse. The number of people who are in solitary is astonishing and indefensible. It’s my personal opinion that there are many, many people and policy makers who recognize that the current system doesn’t work well. What folks are not necessarily convinced of is that there is real hope for change.

KG: Is racism contributing to the holdup in change?

PK: Oh my god, yes, of course. Racism plays a very huge role in the lack of political will to fix a very broken system. And again, there are many different facets at play. When you have such a huge criminal justice system, there are many different parts that need reform— basically all the parts of it—but the things I think should be very high priorities are sentencing reform, which would send far fewer people to prison in the first place, and a sort of hidden issue that got a little bit more attention this year but deserves ongoing attention is public defense reform.

Eighty percent of criminal defendants are too poor to afford a lawyer. Right now some of those folks who are accused of felonies with serious consequences if convicted meet their lawyers an hour before their court proceedings and are forced into plea deals that they shouldn’t sign. It’s very common for public defenders to handle 400 felonies a year, and if you just sit back for a minute and think about the math—maybe they get a week of vacation, I’d certainly hope so—that means basically they’re spending less than a day on any given case, which, I can just tell you as having been a criminal justice defendant myself, is totally unacceptable.

But I’m not trying to blame those attorneys. The problem is the pressure of those caseloads. It’s a system that needs reform. If we saw zealous public defense, even if prosecution remained the same but matched resources to public defenders, you would see a very different composition of the prison system. You would see people with fewer convictions in the first place, shorter prison terms. You would see more people being diverted appropriately early in the process.

It’s a sort of low-profile issue, but it’s one that I think would make an enormous difference. And it would simply be fulfilling the Sixth Amendment. The third thing I think would make a really really big difference would be reforming the juvenile justice system of this country.

KG: Clearly, your privilege played a large role in your sentencing. You got 15 months, which you wrote felt like a “miracle” at the time.

PK: My access to counsel, specifically. Standing in front of that judge, there are all kinds of implicit privileges that attach to an upper-middle-class white woman, but you can’t underestimate how important access to good legal counsel is. I was able to afford good legal counsel, and any person who is accused of a crime would want that. It’s a really stark inequality in the system.

KG: Did you get special treatment once in prison?

PK: I encountered many COs or staffers who were quite straightforward about their racism, so I would say yes. And I write about that in the book, in terms of my counselor being someone who would go on and on about “northerners” and “us northerners” -- “northerners” meaning white people.

KG: As a convicted drug criminal, do you support the legalization of marijuana or other drugs?

PK: I completely support the legalization of marijuana. I think that that process will teach us a lot about legalization and how to do that safely and sensibly, and then we can apply what we learn from legalizing marijuana to other controlled substances. That is just simple and logical to me.

KG: Did you see many drugs in prison?

PK: Yes, sure. It wasn’t this overwhelming situation in Danbury, but there definitely were people who were getting access to and taking drugs. I think that happens in every prison or jail I ever heard of. Locking people up in prison does not help their drug addiction. Even if they get clean, there’s nothing happening in prison to allow them to protect themselves and deal with their illness when they get home, which is what’s most important.

The same is true for mental illness, you know? The conditions of confinement do not make mental illness better. They make it worse.

KG: How do you respond to critiques that you—and Orange Is the New Black—are profiting off the struggles and stories of women of color?

PK: The book is the book, right? I wrote the book to depict my own experience, and I think that’s a really important thing. I don’t see any problem whatsoever with me depicting my own experience and telling my own story. I’m very proud of the show, but Jenji is the show’s creator and at the end of the day, she’s the ultimate decision-maker. I remain in close contact with some women I did time with—a variety of women, some of them are white, some of them are not white. The people who have been in touch with me —both when the book came out and when the show started—are excited. The people I knew in prison, if they are not excited, have not communicated that to me.

I try to be very respectful of other people’s stories and other people's ownership of their stories. I hope that the show opens up more and more desire and demand for stories that come out of the criminal justice system. That’s what I think is most important: for people to have more and more hunger to hear about a system very different than what has been depicted to date in the media.

KG: What about Nora Jansen, your drug-dealing ex-girlfriend and the real-life Alex Vause? Has she responded?

PK: No, we’re not in touch.

KG: Are you still angry with her?

PK: No! I’m not angry at all. I write about that in the book at the end. I mean, I’m very grateful our paths crossed [while being transported to testify against a conspirator, they shared a cell]. That was the final turning point of me taking full responsibility for myself, letting go of blaming other individuals for my own predicament. It was finally the literal opportunity to confront my past.

I’m very grateful to the universe for that, because I think that was really what prompted me to be like, you know, I made my own choices. And I have to deal with them.