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

Human Rights

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.”

But that doesn’t happen to everybody, she said. There were some middle-class white women who didn’t feel like they belonged in prison, suffered an identity crisis and clung to the staffers instead of forming relationships with fellow prisoners. “I saw how incredibly miserable they were because they were essentially refusing to recognize their connection with other people,” she said.

But these connections, Kerman said, were the only thing she redeemed from prison because she crossed paths with women she probably wouldn’t have otherwise. She said she was even grateful to end up sharing a cell with her ex-girlfriend who asked her to deliver the drug money.

“It was a very important transformation,” Kerman said, saying she was still blaming her ex-girlfriend for her actions until that seemingly fated encounter.

Need For Prison Reform

When Kerman was released from prison, she ran into the arms of her fiancée and had her support network of friends and family, along with shelter and a job, waiting.  

“It’s a daily reflection on how fortunate I am to have a safe and stable place to live, to have my health and have access to healthcare, to have work which is fulfilling, and to be part of the community again,” she said.

Kerman now sits on the board of the Women’s Prison Association, a New York organization that helps women who don’t have such fortunate situations after prison. The WPA helps women at-risk for incarceration as well as those who are currently serving. She also spends a lot of time talking to students on campuses hoping to raise awareness in the younger generation, which will determine the fate of our justice system.

Changing our justice system is going to take a lot of work. Kerman believes some of the problems we need to tackle are the lack of adequate public defense, sentencing reform, drug reform, better police practices, ending the school-to-prison pipeline, and addressing the profiting from mass incarceration. She said we need to especially focus on significantly reducing the prison population and release prisoners who don’t need to be behind bars.

“The very first step is to stop the flow of human beings into this enormous maze of prisons and jails we built,” she said. “Then we have at least the prospect of making those institutions vehicles of rehabilitation instead of just really destructive punishment engines.”

Rehabilitation Over Punishment

The Netflix series Orange Is The New Black has brought a conception of life in prison to TV screens across the nation, consequently reaching those who have never experienced incarceration. Kerman said that while it was scary to relinquish control to Jenji Kohan for the adaptation, she feels lucky that such creative people were attracted to the work. She said her favorite part about the portrayal was Kohan’s choice to have so many female protagonists. 

“I love her choice to have many of these women step into the spotlight,” Kerman said. “We learn their back stories, we learn what’s driving them, and we understand their agency.”

The TV series is loosely based on her memoir, but Kerman believes the adaptation was necessary.

“Television relies on external conflict. It relies on conflict between people, and, fortunately, there’s a lot of that in prison,” she said. “Prison is a place founded on scarcity, by definition, and where there is scarcity there will be conflict. … But a book affords the opportunity for introspection and the experience of incarceration is one that is often all about internal conflict.”

Season 2 of Orange Is The New Black premieres June 6. While the show will still reference parts of the book, it will also take a dive into the world Kohan has created.

“Every now and then there is something verbatim from the book, and there’s some really interesting adaptations….  in Season 2,” Kerman said. “And then there are, of course, dramatic departures, brand new characters who are pure fiction. Season 2 is going to be great.”

Above all, Kerman enjoys that the show continues to help viewers humanize prisoners.

“That’s important, that’s the first step,” she said. “Because once we recognize all those millions of people as human and important, and we recognize that their lives have value and meaning, then suddenly it becomes a lot less defensible to have the kind of criminal justice policies that we have today.”

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