The real Piper on prison, and Orange Is the New Black

First aired on Q (15/8/13)

For 13 months, Piper Kerman was known as 11187-424: she was serving time in an American prison. Her memoir about that experience, Orange Is the New Black, became a New York Times bestseller and has been adapted as an original series on Netflix by Weeds creator Jenji Kohan. In the show, which has been garnering rave reviews, Piper Chapman is Kerman's fictional counterpart, played by Taylor Schilling.

Recently, Kerman talked to Q about how her experiences differ from the story told in the Netflix original series. Kerman was just out of college when she met "what seemed like an incredibly sophisticated older woman. And what I learned, rather quickly, was that she was involved in drug trafficking, and rather than that scaring me off, that was, you know, sort of scary but also intriguing to me," she told guest host Stephen Quinn. "I ended up following that woman around the globe, and at her request, I did carry a bag of drug money from Chicago to Brussels."

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The experience frightened her, and shortly afterwards she ended the relationship, went back to the U.S. and moved to California to begin a new life. But five years later, federal agents came knocking. "They let me know that I had been indicted in federal court in Chicago, and I had better show up for my arraignment or I'd be taken into custody. That began my journey through the American criminal justice system."

Kerman decided to write about her time in prison in part because she found, on her release, that people she knew were very curious. "It was clear to me that the hidden world of prisons was very fascinating to people,' she said. But she also hoped that "people would come away from either reading the book or now watching the television program and perhaps have a different sense, a different, more complex, and more multifaceted sense, of who is locked up in prison today and why they're there, what are the pathways that bring them there, and what really happens to people behind bars, particularly in the United States where we have the largest prison population in the world, and as far as I know the largest prison population in human history."

How different was the reality of prison from her expectations? "I didn't really know what to expect at all because any information I was able to find about prison, and survival in prison, was really authored by, and targeted towards, men," Kerman said. She was fearful, because of our general image of prisons as very violent. "But a low-security women's prison is not a place that is generally plagued by violence. So it was really apparent to me, almost immediately, that those fears were misplaced."

Kerman was struck by the fact that many of her fellow inmates were serving much longer sentences than hers. "So one of the indelible things that I came away with from my experience in prison was a much more profound understanding of inequality in American society, and how that plays out in our courts of law," she said. "Some Americans are policed in a certain way, other Americans are policed in a different way, prosecuted in a different way, and sentenced and punished in different ways. And that is often due to race, class, access to counsel, you know, really, really important issues of inequality that play out in a place where we really expect everyone to be treated equally, which is the courtroom."

In the Netflix series, Piper Chapman's fiancé, Larry, is a newspaper columnist and appears on a radio show to tell her story, and it frustrates the character to have someone else tell her story. When asked how she feels about seeing her memoir depicted, Kerman laughed. "Piper Chapman is not Piper Kerman," she said. "It's really interesting for me to watch, specifically, Piper Chapman's struggles and her troubles. When I went to prison, one of the thing I was mindful of, pretty much my number one priority, was to avoid conflict as much as possible. Piper Chapman doesn't always do that. She makes a lot of mistakes. And I made a lot of mistakes when I was locked up. But she makes some doozies."

Kerman is now on the board of the Women's Prison Association board, and feels strongly about the need for prison reform. "As much as I care about the conditions of confinement... the most important thing to me is to see fewer people put in prison in the first place. To do that we really need to reform our sentencing schemes, our sentencing guidelines, and do a lot more prevention in communities that struggle with things like drug addiction and drug abuse and violence."

Listen to the whole interview by clicking on the audio player above.

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