Piper Kerman walked onto the stage to tell her story of public failure with the demeanour and command of language at a level usually reserved for Fortune 500 CEOs. Her story was not centered on a humble upbringing that bred the tenacity of a billion dollar fortune, but sharing her experience spending 13 months in FCI Dandbury for a crime she did commit. Her well-known incarceration was the outcome of a post-college experimentation in 1993, exploring her own sexuality with Catherine Cleary Wolters. Wolters was not your average Billie Bad Ass with only a pack of cigarettes rolled up her sleeve but an international female drug dealer for Alaji, a West African kingpin. Although Piper wasn’t caught during the time, nor when she carried a bag of drug money across European borders, her misguided experience came back to haunt her five years later when the feds came knocking on her door. Interestingly, because Alaji was a hard man for the Americans to wrangle down and extradite, Piper Kerman was actually under federal supervision for five years, reporting monthly to a pre-trial supervisor, before her sentence began in 2004. Amazingly, despite the immense pressure on her during this time, the convict was able to obscure her crime and knowledge of any involvement to most of her family, friends and employers. It was only until the year before her release that Piper and her then-fiancé/now-husband, Larry Smith, set up The Pipe Bomb, a now legendary blog that documented the year leading up to her surrender to jail for their friends and family.
Although the (in)famous inmate (depending on your perspective) did not take notes during her time in the slammer, it was her bunkmate who planted the seed for Piper to write a memoir. Starting the book only after being released from prison, Piper published the best-selling memoir, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison. It was a highly marketable, engaging, and unique perspective on one of America’s most damning industries: the prison system. Immediately after her book tour wrapped up, the author was approached by Jenji Kohan, Emmy award-winning producer of Weeds, to produce an original Netflix Series of the same title. The show launched on Netflix on July 1st, 2013, and became a critically acclaimed series starring Taylor Schilling, Jason Biggs, and Kate Mulgrew.
The real Piper is a big fan of the show, although, acknowledges it as a largely Hollywood-production and recognizes her stay was much less eventful. Affectionately re-titled Orange Is the New Crack by fans, #OITNB has turned the spot light back onto the American Criminal Justice System with its refreshing take on the story, focusing on females’ rising incarceration numbers and nonsensical laws. Laws such as the federal mandatory minimums (and similar state policies like New York’s Rockefeller drug laws) have incarcerated thousands of non-violent drug offenders who might otherwise have been punished in different ways, and are the primary reason that there has been a 300% increase in the number of women incarcerated in the last decade (80% of whom are mothers). Had it not been for the mandatory minimum, Piper would have most likely been let off with only community service and probation.
Regardless of bizarre regulations, the book’s hero has managed to channel the negative experience into a positive, giving back to the incarcerated community. Kerman serves on the board of the Women’s Prison Association and is a frequently invited speaker to students of law, criminology, gender and women’s studies, sociology, and creative writing, and also to groups that include the American Correctional Association’s Disproportionate Minority Confinement Task Force, federal probation officers, public defenders, justice reform advocates and volunteers, book clubs, and formerly and currently incarcerated people. On February 25, 2014, Kerman testified at a hearing on “Reassessing Solitary Confinement” before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights chaired by Senate Majority Whip, Dick Durbin. As well, Piper Kerman was the 2014 recipient of the Justice Trailblazer Award from the John Jay College Center on Media, Crime & Justice. Not to mention her list of published articles, including New York Times’ article “Prison, Day 1”. At present, Kerman works as a nonprofit strategist for justice-related organizations.
In a recent interview with Fast Company Piper asserted her incarceration has shaped her prison afterlife, “Prison is an experience that is intentionally designed to be debilitating. Coming back is difficult. But when you’ve experienced something so intimidating and frightening, it’s what I call ‘a trump card of failure.’” Going forward, Kerman realizes “it can’t be worse than my previous failure, so fuck it. I did that…I can do this.”. Justice served.
Banner photo courtesy of Bottom Line Productions Inc.