Chattering Class

Piper Kerman on the Reality Behind ‘Orange is the New Black’

The inspiration for Netflix's hit series "Orange Is The New Black" explains the differences -- and similarities -- between truth and fiction

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PIPER KERMAN - credit - Sam Zalutsky

Piper Chapman, the fictional heroine of Netflix’s new series “Orange is the New Black,” was inspired by Piper Kerman and her memoir of the same name — a chronicle of her fifteen-month stint in prison. She schools Brendan in the reality of life behind bars… and how it feels to walk down streets filled with billboards advertising the darkest chapter of her life.

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Brendan Francis Newnam: Piper, welcome. Tell us how did you end up in prison?

Piper Kerman: Well, going way back in time to the early ’90s, I was in my very early twenties, fresh out of college, and I became involved in a relationship with a mysterious older woman.  And she was involved in narcotics trafficking, which I did not know initially but I quickly learned.

A lot of folks would have run screaming, but I was intrigued by her.  And I ended up following her around the globe and, at her request, I carried a bag of money from Chicago to Brussels.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And for that you were convicted of money laundering, 10 years after the fact. So eventually you find yourself in prison. What surprised you the most about prison life?

Piper Kerman: Almost everything was surprising about prison life because I had really no idea what to expect that was realistic. Almost all of the depictions in life that I had seen, whether they were in popular culture or in a more realistic form, were about men.

So I didn’t know if those things, first of all, were true or if they would be true when I entered a women’s prison. The depiction of prisoners as violent is really, really consistent, and naturally I feared violence. And in a minimum security women’s federal prison, I didn’t experience violence.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Your book and the TV show based on your book is filled with fascinating female characters, and we know about them because you wrote about them, and you wrote about them because you had the education and the background to write a memoir.

Very few of your fellow prisoners will probably have that opportunity. So I’m wondering, who is someone you encountered in prison that you wish could write a memoir? Can you tell us their story?

Piper Kerman: There were many women who were fascinating to me on lots of levels. Prison is a place where people choose to talk about themselves, or choose not to.  Silence and being very close-mouthed is definitely a very permissible approach.

So there are women who I did time with, you know my bunkie – the woman who I shared a tiny cubicle with…

Brendan Francis Newnam: Miss Natalie?

Piper Kerman: …Miss Natalie, and I, shared an incredible intimacy. But still her life is very mysterious because she was just not very forthcoming with her past history. I have no idea why she served 8 years in prison, what her offence was.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You said that’s the one question that you can’t ask anyone.

Piper Kerman: Absolutely not.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You knew that much going in; that you weren’t allowed to ask people why they were there.

Piper Kerman: That question is verboten.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Is that, do you think — that impulse not to ask why you’re there — is that a way, internally, prisoners give each other a second chance?

Piper Kerman: That is really an astute observation. I think it is a little bit of a second chance, and I think that there are some offenses which are controversial or could really bring heat to you — if you for example, if you had harmed a child — that would definitely earn you a lot of animus from your fellow prisoners.

Also, I found myself serving a 15-month sentence for a non-violent drug offense. There were many other women there who were serving much longer sentences for non-violent drug offenses. So that disparity in sentencing, on a personal level: “Wow I’m doing a year and you’re doing 7 years, that sucks.”  Not talking about the nature of your offenses is a little bit of a release valve around confronting those disparities.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Sure. So what is it like watching the TV version of your life? You walk down the street and there are literally billboards advertising the darkest moment of your life. That’s got to be strange.

Piper Kerman: It’s very, very thrilling. It’s certainly surreal. It’s an interesting thing to set out and write a book, a memoir, about certainly the stupidest and the least moral… your biggest mistake, to put that out there. And then to see that transform into something different is really interesting.

So I watched the show for the first time… It was fascinating because there are many, many departures from, certainly from my story. Piper Chapman’s choices and storyline is very, very different than my life.

But there are also other moments, small moments, like the scene in the first episode when Piper Chapman is put into the room where she’s going to live initially for that first night, and she has a whole exchange with DeMarco, the short Italian-American prisoner who tells her to sleep on top of the bed and not under the covers.

I watch that scene and it is… it transports me back instantly. That scene is so close to reality. It’s really strange and fascinating for me.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So you now sit on the board of the Women’s Prison Association. You do a lot of public speaking about your time in prison and about conditions in prison in general, to law schools and other organizations.

I’m wondering do you ever get “prisoned-out?” You served your time, you wrote a book about your experience. Is there an impulse to want to move on?

Piper Kerman: The criminal justice system is a sprawling universe which contains a lot of sadness and a lot of darkness and a lot of human failing on every side, whether you’re talking about people who commit crimes or whether you’re talking about the people who run the courts and the jails.

So there are definitely times for me personally when it’s like, “This is hard stuff.” It is, it’s really hard stuff. These are some of the substantial problems as a society that we’re struggling with. How do we have safety for everyone? How do we hold people accountable when they transgress against the community? But they’re really important and so it’s important to talk about.