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Orange Is The New Black’s Piper: 'The Biggest Thing I Took From Jail Was Complete Awareness of Inequality'

"You can’t go through that experience and not see on stark display how differently prisoners are treated."

Photo Credit: Debby Wong /


Piper Kerman leaned back in her chair on the stage at San Francisco’s Norse Theatre and reflected on the “odd lineup of opportunity and time” that put her in prison, pushed her to write the book that became the blockbuster Netflix series, Orange Is The New Black, and now has her speaking for humane prison reforms, especially for low-income women snared by the system.    

“I often think of it as an odd lineup of opportunity and time,” said Kerman, reflecting on the before, during and after phases of her journey. “Just crossing paths with my ex-lover at a time where I was willing to do something risky, dangerous, outside of my experience.”  

That youthful episode resulted in her drug delivery charge that could have happened to anyone. “I believe [it] is extremely normal for someone in their late teens, early 20s [to take risks],” Kerman said, adding that she was privileged because she could fight back in court with a good defense team that helped her attain the short sentence of 15 months. “If every person had the same quality of defense that I had, and the same access to counsel that I had, our prison population would look very different ... People would not go to prison who currently do, and people would go to prison for shorter periods of time.”

Kerman’s experience gave her an up-close-and-personal view of the shocking inequalities that plague prisoners before, during and after their time behind bars. She talked about those realities, what she learned from others in prison, her journey to forgiveness, and what can be done in an appearance at San Francisco’s City Arts & Lectures and in a followup AlterNet interview.

“My goal in writing the book was quite simple. It was for people to recognize the millions and millions of people in our prisons and jails as human beings who are complicated and interesting and compelling and worthy of recognition as human beings,” Kerman said . “And I think the show does a good job of portraying each of the characters as rich, interesting human beings.”

Making Connections in Prison

Kerman had an ordinary, middle-class childhood, and in some ways, an ordinary coming of age. During her transition into adulthood, she made adventurous mistakes as many do, though hers were influenced by her ex-girlfriend, a drug dealer who belonged to an international drug cartel.

Her education about America’s criminal justice system began long before she started her sentence. She saw that many other people facing charges and jail had been marginalized by racism and poverty long before they walked into court. Eighty percent of criminal defendants are too poor to afford a lawyer, she said.

After waiting six years from the time she was indicted, Kerman had no idea what to expect when she finally set foot in prison. But one of her first observations was the institution’s shocking disparity.

“The single biggest thing that I walked out of prison with was a completely reality-based sense of inequality because you can’t go through that experience and not see on stark display that some prisoners are treated one way and other prisoners are treated another,” she said. “And we’re supposed to be all equal in front of the law, but nothing could be further from the truth.“

Aside from unfair treatment, Kerman noticed other divisions in prison. As depicted on the TV series, race can divide prisoners either through choice or by the prison’s enforcement. But then many of the prisoners slowly realized what they have in common. “As time goes on, the distinctions between people are far less important than what they have in common,” she said . “And people forge friendships over all kinds of things. Might be work, might be affinity, a shared interest.”