'Orange Is The New Black' In Federal Women's Prison Piper Kerman was bored with her middle class life — so she joined a group of artists-turned-drug smugglers. Her memoir, Orange Is The New Black: My Year In A Women's Prison, recounts her exotic life in the drug trade, her attempt to leave it behind, and her experience serving time with other women from all walks of life.

'Orange Is The New Black' In Federal Women's Prison

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan, in Washington.

Piper Kerman graduated Smith College with a taste for adventure. Her circle of friends came to include a Bohemian artist who doubled as a courier for a West African drug lord, and Kerman soon found herself along for a wild ride to exotic locations - and ended up smuggling a suitcase packed with drug money from Chicago to Brussels.

Eventually, she broke free, found normal jobs and a blooming romance, and then federal officers knocked on her door with an indictment. Piper Kerman pleaded guilty and got a sentence of 15 months. She served 13, most of which was at FCI Danbury, where she learned a great many things.

If you've been inside a women's prison as an inmate or corrections officer, call and tell us what you learned: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, a monthly magazine goes virtual for one issue. We'll talk with the editor of Inc. But first, Piper Kerman on her year in women's prison. Her book is titled "Orange is the New Black," and she joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Ms. PIPER KERMAN (Author, "Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison"): Nice to be here, Neal. Thanks so much for having me.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask you about the advice you got from your lawyer just before you went inside: Keep to yourself. Don't make any friends.

Ms. KERMAN: I had a - I was lucky. I was very lucky to be able to have and afford a really wonderful, private attorney, and he gave me good advice on a lot of things. But that was not advice that I think anyone could realistically follow because it would be very difficult to survive and navigate the prison system without friends.

CONAN: And you describe the women you met and who came to be your friends, and who mattered a great deal to you in the book. But I have to say, the title is somewhat misleading: Except right at the end, you're wearing khaki.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KERMAN: I did wear khaki for most of my time that I was in prison, a simple, khaki uniform. But at the very end of my strange and twisted journey, I did end up in the stereotypical orange jumpsuit for a variety of reasons.

But you know, the real reason for the title, above and beyond being a play on the orange jumpsuit, is the fact that women are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. prison population, which is an unfortunate fact.

CONAN: And we want to talk with people today about what they - what you learn inside there. And one of things that you learned, toward the end of the book, you write: All of my friends outside, the people who love me, wanted me to be innocent - when, in fact, you were not.

Ms. KERMAN: No, and I take full responsibility for my offense, you know, an offense committed when I was a young woman, at a time when a lot of young people seek to take risks. Some - and I think that a lot of young people sort of take the risks that are right in front of them, sometimes very positive risks, and sometimes very negative risks. And that's the direction I went in. And, you know, it was a reckless and selfish time in my life, which I'm not proud of.

CONAN: You weren't proud of it before you went to prison, but you came to terms with it in a new way while you were there.

Ms. KERMAN: Yes, yes, I did. You know, there's a really important thing that I learned about myself and about, I think, crime in general -certainly my own crime - and that it's really borne out of an indifference to other people's suffering. And that is certainly at the heart of my own crime and, I think, most crimes.

And I learned that not because of my sentence, per se, but because of my contact with the women that I served my time with, many of whom, their own lives had been ravaged by drug addiction and their health sometimes, their families torn apart. And I really came to recognize my own part in their pain and their suffering.

CONAN: You also point out that maybe you could have learned that same lesson doing community service but...

Ms. KERMAN: I mean, that's true. I mean, the really unfortunate thing about the way the prison system works is that it really reinforces that indifference to human suffering, rather than helping offenders come to terms with the harm they've done.

CONAN: Because it's an institution that deals with people - well, as if they're disposable.

Ms. KERMAN: Exactly.

CONAN: And you point out that indeed, where you served the majority of your time, at FCI Danbury - well, I think a phrase that you would resent deeply is Club Fed. But, nevertheless, you did point out several times the real prison was down the hill.

Ms. KERMAN: The real prison was down the hill. I spent 11 months in a federal prison camp, which was a, quote-unquote, satellite camp of the larger FCI Danbury, which is a high-security women's prison, one of three in the country.

However, towards the end of my sentence, twists and turns in the road put me into, first, the Federal Transfer Center in Oklahoma City, which is a maximum-security facility, and then the federal jail in Chicago, which is also a maximum-security facility. And I found those to be very, very different than the Danbury Federal Prison Camp and probably, I think, much more like the typical prison institution in many parts of the country, whether state or federal.

CONAN: There's an interesting moment in your - when you arrive in Chicago, and this is a place where for the most part, these are women who have just entered the system and on their way to places like Danbury and other various women's prisons around the country. Nevertheless, you came to realize that when you arrived there, you were seen as the hardened con.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KERMAN: It's true, and that was something that was very surprising to me. You know, federal jail is a place where folks are held before their cases are resolved, generally people who either can't afford bail or don't - or have not received bail, a pretty crazy place, and very different than an actual prison. It's a funny distinction, probably, to a lot of listeners.

But it was ironic that a lot of those women who were being held, and had not yet been sentenced, sort of were a little nervous and scared of me, of little old me, because I had come from an actual prison and therefore, had some sort of insider authority.

CONAN: And there was another part of your experience that you came to terms with there in Chicago. This person who you got engaged with and then traveled the world with and eventually smuggled a suitcase full of dollars for, well, you'd harbored revenge fantasies about her because you thought she'd set you up, she ratted you out.

Ms. KERMAN: You know, I do take responsibility for my own offense and my own, very bad decisions. But I really had harbored, you know, still, blame for another person. And coming face to face with her after more than 10 years suddenly really brought me to the realization that she was not responsible for my situation. I was responsible for my situation, and whatever responsibility she might bear, you know, it was a much more empowering thing to be forgiving than to hold on to anger, resentments or revenge. And that was a really clarifying moment for me.

CONAN: We'd like to talk with those of you in the audience who spent time inside women's prisons about what you learned there; 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Our guest is Piper Kerman. Her book is "Orange is the New Black." And let's go first to Marilyn(ph), and Marilyn's calling us from Columbia, South Carolina.

MARILYN (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Marilyn.

MARILYN: I just - I used to be a supervisor in the maximum-security men's prisons for the state of Virginia, but I did have the opportunity to tour the main women's prison, and I found it fascinating because the only fencing on the women's prison were to protect the women who were about to be paroled. They said women didn't run.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: They said women didn't run?

MARILYN: No fencing.

CONAN: And so how were conditions different from, well, your professional point of view?

MARILYN: Well, from the men's prisons, they're double-fencing with the concertina wire and people in towers with shotguns, and the women's prison didn't even have a fence.

CONAN: Hmm. Piper Kerman, I do have to say that there's one point you say, you've got to get me out of here, to your fianc�, but I - and there's nobody ever in your book who says: Why don't we tunnel our way out?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KERMAN: The prison camp where I spent the first 11 months of my sentence was not a fenced facility, and so you could easily have walked away at almost any time, and no one ever did. The high-security prison that was immediately adjacent was, in fact, heavily fenced. There was a vicious-looking, triple-layer, razor-wire fence. But to escape from that facility would have been a tricky, tricky proposition - and certainly from Oklahoma City or from the Chicago federal jail.

I can't say I invested a lot of thought in escape, but it would probably be a pretty challenging thing.

CONAN: Marilyn, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

MARILYN: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Bill, and Bill's with us from Grand Rapids.

BILL (Caller): How are you doing?

CONAN: We're doing well, thank you.

BILL: I called because I worked in a male institution for five years in the Ohio Department of Corrections, and was asked to transfer to a women's facility. When I investigated what that would be like, I really began to question the validity of having different-gender staff working with inmates. I wondered if your guest could comment on what it's like to have male correction officers in a female prison, and if she thinks that's a valid option.

CONAN: And Bill, just briefly, what did you do there?

BILL: I was the chaplain.

CONAN: Chaplain. OK. Piper Kerman?

Ms. KERMAN: Well, Bill, thanks for your service as a chaplain, because that's a really important role within any prison setting, first of all. In every facility in which I lived, the overwhelming number of the correctional officers or guards were men. Some of them were good men, and some of them were bad men. And there were also women who worked in each facility as well.

I think one of the things that's most problematic about that situation is the paradigm of guards who have near-complete control over prisoners' lives. When that gender imbalance is there, it reinforces a lot of aspects of the women who have been prisoners, many of whom have had complicated relationships with men over their history.

Women in prison are much more likely to have been physically hurt and abused over the course of their lives. So I really, on a sort of philosophical level, that's a disturbing thing.

I do think gender parity among guards would be a better thing all around in facilities. I think a lot of folks in corrections say that it's hard to recruit women to work in institutions, and I do understand that.

CONAN: Bill, thanks very much for the call.

BILL: Thank you.

CONAN: If you've been in a women's prison as an inmate or as a professional - either as a corrections officer or a chaplain - give us a call, tell us your story: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. What did you learn? Our guest is Piper Kerman. Her book is "Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison." Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

After spending 13 months in federal prison on money-laundering charges related to drugs, Piper Kerman writes in her book: What finally made me recognize the indifferent cruelty of my own past wasn't the constraints put on me by the U.S. government nor the debt I had amassed for legal fees, nor the fact that I could not be with the man I loved; it was sitting and talking and working with and knowing the people who suffered because of what people like me had done.

None of these women rebuked me. Most of them had been intimately involved in the drug business themselves. Yet for the first time, I really understood how my choices made me complicit in their suffering. I was the accomplice to their addiction.

Her book is titled "Orange Is The New Black." You can read Piper Kerman's recipe for prison cheesecake in an excerpt from her book on our Web site, npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

If you've been inside a woman's prison as an inmate or corrections officer, call and tell us what you learned, including your recipes. Our email address is talk@npr.org. The phone number is 800-989-8255. And you can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Piper Kerman, I have to ask, since you've left prison, have you made cheesecake?

Ms. KERMAN: I have not made cheesecake since leaving prison, but I made a lot of them while I was there. It was the only recipe I learned. There are definitely some set delicacies that are part of the prison cooking canon. That's the only one I mastered, though.

CONAN: It's interesting. You said that as a graduate of a women's college, you were maybe more used to the idea of serving, well, time with a whole bunch of women and the fascination with food.

Ms. KERMAN: Yes, that's true. I would say that that was a big factor when I was an undergraduate at a women's college - was, you know, busting the stress of exams and the pressure of school with food and rituals around food. And that is certainly true as well in the other women's institution in which I spent time, the federal prison.

So I think that when you are presented with institutional food on a day-in and day-out basis and often not very good food, despite the best efforts of the prisoners who are working in the kitchen, the opportunity to eat food that is prepared with love, which is really only the food that people are able to make for themselves - there were two small microwaves for about 200 prisoners is really a huge treat.

And a lot of the women who were there in Danbury were of either Latino or Caribbean background, and they would particularly strive to make food that reminded them of their own cultures, and that was especially delicious. I didn't master any of those recipes, but I did make the cheesecake.

CONAN: Cathy's(ph) on the line with us from Charlotte.

CATHY (Caller): Hi, how are you?

CONAN: Good.

CATHY: Actually, the girls would know me as Tia because that was my nickname, and I just got released from Coswell(ph) in Texas, and then I was also at Danbury, and I was enjoying her recipes. I actually cooked one this week for a friend of mine from the church, and we got very creative cooking in there.

Ms. KERMAN: Absolutely.

CONAN: What was your favorite, Cathy?

CATHY: It was actually, it was fried noodles, and you'd make it with a Coke, and then you also use Spam with honey, because we were limited in our meat and onions. And halfway through the meal, I surprised them and said, well, this is a typical prison dinner.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KERMAN: My favorite was chilaquiles, which would be made by reconstituting a bag of corn chips with either things that you could get legitimately from the commissary or sometimes a contraband onion.

CATHY: They were great. They were really good. And the cheesecakes, we're known for them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CATHY: We can really pull them together for a birthday party. How long were you in Danbury?

Ms. KERMAN: I spent 11 months in the Danbury, in the camp part of the facility.

CATHY: Right. I was in behind the fence, and it was a heck of a fence.

Ms. KERMAN: Yeah, it was a big fence, a big, scary fence.

CONAN: Cathy, how did you girls down the hill regard the campers up the hill?

CATHY: Well, to be honest with you, we thought they had it made in the shade.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CATHY: Because they were able to walk around and move. We were under movement, which meant that we could only move across the compound every 10 minutes during the 10-minutes move, which was like a quarter 'til the hour.

Ms. KERMAN: I was really stunned...

CATHY: The campers were able to go up and down and go outside. We weren't allowed to do that except after 4 o'clock or on the weekend.

Ms. KERMAN: You were locked down. Yeah, I was really stunned when I was moved from a minimum-security facility to a maximum-security facility, - especially the Chicago facility - at what a dramatic impact the conditions of your incarceration make on your mental and emotional state. It's really devastating.

CATHY: And I was at the medical facility in Texas, Coswell, because they sent me there. I'm disabled and was sent there the last four months of my sentence.

CONAN: Are you doing OK, Cathy?

CATHY: I haven't seen a doctor yet. I've been out since Friday, actually, but and I just left my PO officer, and we heard it on the radio. And I told my friend, I said, get me on the phone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CATHY: Because when you leave, and you do such a it touches your life so that you want to help so much to - other people. And I'm so impressed at your book. I'm going to look it up, Piper, and see what else I can find out. It's so impressive to be witnesses, positive, for the girls.

Ms. KERMAN: Thank you very much, Cathy. I really, I'm really happy that you're home and I really, really wish you the best.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Cathy.

CATHY: Have a good day.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Ms. KERMAN: You too.

CONAN: Let's see - we go next to Milena(ph). Milena's with us from Clarksdale in Arizona.

MILENA (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

MILENA: Hi, yeah, actually, it's Clarkdale, Arizona, and I've been out for actually eight months, and I spent 12 months in Dublin FPI in California, and then two months in a halfway house in Phoenix, Arizona.

CONAN: Dublin is another of the places that you mention in the book, Piper.

Ms. KERMAN: Absolutely. It's another facility that is a large, high-security facility, and then I believe they also have a satellite camp there, too.

CONAN: And which side were you on?

MILENA: I was actually I think they consider it medium now, but it's medium-high. I was in the medium-high facility. They actually did my points wrong. So I could have gone to camp here in Arizona. So I spent my whole time in the FCI, not knowing that I had the points to be in a camp until I was ready to come home.

CONAN: Oh, I'm so sorry.

MILENA: No, you know what? The girls there are amazing, and I just want to say that they work so hard in the facility and to change their lives, and I completely agree with pretty much everything that your guest has said about being in the prison and what it does to you psychologically and emotionally and even leaving your family. So...

CONAN: You would think that if, given that experience, that people would take good care not to go back.

MILENA: Most people would, but I was just saying to the lady who answered the phone, is I'm very lucky because I have an amazingly supportive family who has been there with me through this whole, entire thing - and some really good friends.

But a lot of people that get out, men and women, they don't have the support system. They don't have anywhere to go. They're in halfway houses for three months, six months, a year, you know, looking for jobs, and you know, the opportunities aren't really there, especially with the economy the way it is right now.

So, you know, even if you have your best intentions at heart, it's still easy to re-offend because it's easy to make a mistake or slip up or go in the wrong direction.

Ms. KERMAN: She couldn't be more right. You know, there are some really consistent factors that make up success in terms of coming home, and those are stable and safe housing, access to a job, the ability to get a job, have employment, keep employment; and family reunification.

And that's a really, really important, big deal for women especially, because most of the women in prison, I think 80 percent, are mothers, and a significant percentage of them had primary custody of their children before they went to prison. And gaining the support of their family and their community, their larger community, is a really big challenge.

And when those factors are difficult, it makes it very, very challenging to keep your feet on the straight and narrow. You know, unfortunately, two-thirds of all offenders are being sent back to prison. Sometimes that's because of a new offense, but a lot of the time it's because of what's called a technical violation, like missing a probation or parole appointment or sometimes a bad - a dirty drug test.

And I really I mean, a lot of people talk about personal responsibility in that respect, and again, I take personal responsibility for myself. But to me, a two-thirds failure rate is a systemic failure. You know, it's not simply about individuals.

CONAN: Milena, thanks very much, and good luck to you.

MILENA: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Ms. KERMAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see - go next to this is Mary, Mary with us from Minneapolis.

MARY (Caller): Oh, yeah, hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

MARY: Oh, yes, hi. I was just calling in. I, too, spent some time in the federal system. I was 18 years old when I first entered into the system, and it was totally shocking for me, I mean totally. I was airlifted. I was black-boxed. I was considered maximum because of the co-defendants that were involved in the case. And I started out in Lexington, Kentucky.

And then I did a couple of years there, and then finally they opened up FPC Peakan(ph). So I was fortunate to be able to go over to the camp, and that was closer to me going home.

You know, I still spent like, three years in the camp. So I mean, it was a devastating experience, but at the same time I learned a lot. And the women are they are exceptional. You have women that, you know, take you under their wing as mothers, you know, for the younger girls. It like I said, it was just a very devastating experience, and it is hard to adjust back out here into the world. And fortunately, I've been home for 11 years.

Ms. KERMAN: Great.

MARY: I went through my supervised release. I didn't have any problems with that. And I didn't have that support system, like a lot of people had, the family and all that, because most of my family are into crime. So I didn't have that. I went to a totally different state.

Ms. KERMAN: Mm-hmm.


MARY: And I started all over. I started out in a halfway house. I took jobs that were, you know, minimum wage and I looked at it as if, if I could break rock, you know, in 100-degree weather in the prison system for 4 cents an hour...

Ms. KERMAN: Mm-hmm.

MARY: ...I could very well take minimum wage and make it work.

Ms. KERMAN: That's an incredible amount of strength that you really exhibited and that's a really tough situation, and that's a great point about when folks come home, what kind of situation are they coming home to? So many women that I knew either were going home to really uncertain and potentially unsafe situations and they were scared to go home, and that was heartbreaking. To see somebody who is frightened to leave prison is a devastating thing.

MARY: Yes.

Ms. KERMAN: And you know, I also knew a lot of women who were when they were going home, they were going home to homeless shelters.

MARY: Mm-hmm.

Ms. KERMAN: So these are the factors that really make a tremendous difference in terms of our overall public safety and in terms of people's ability once they've done their time and, you know, paid their debts to society, to come back successfully. And unfortunately, there aren't enough factors built into the way that the system works to allow folks to really succeed as much as they should be able to. Because I see folks walk out of prison and they have the strongest intention to put their lives back together. But it takes, you know, a support system to do that.

MARY: Yes, it does. And it is hard because, you know, there have been moments where, yeah, I felt like I was doing OK, but then it seemed like maybe I should, you know, go back to my old life because that seemed easier for me.

Ms. KERMAN: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. KERMAN: Yeah.

MARY: But, you know and I got to tell you this. I do agree with you about the food. Just - the chilaquiles, I just actually made myself one the other weekend. I mean, still to this day, 11 years later. I crave the food.

Ms. KERMAN: Oh, those chilaquiles are good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARY: Yes, they are. They are. I actually made some for my son. And you know, he has no idea about my past because he's very young.

Ms. KERMAN: Mm-hmm.

MARY: But I made some for my son and he - I mean, he enjoyed it just as much as I did. And he's like, where did you get that recipe? And I'm like, oh, just from some friends, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: That's the truth. That's the truth.

MARY: Yeah. But, yeah, I really appreciate you guys having this on the air because I don't think people realize what women really go through. I mean, we know what we've done is wrong and we pay our debt to society, but at the same time, mentally, emotionally, it is a bearing on us. It truly is. I mean, I really appreciate, you know, you airing this show. I happen to be driving home from work and I'm like, oh, my gosh. Somebody is talking about this, yes. So...

Ms. KERMAN: Absolutely.

CONAN: Mary, you drive safe now.

MARY: Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call.

Ms. KERMAN: Thanks, Mary.

CONAN: We're talking to Piper Kerman about her new book, "Orange is the New Black."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And I wanted to ask you, you talked about the importance of family outside, and of course, that's important. You also talk in the book about the importance of family inside and how women tend to gravitate towards, well, the ones who aren't well, the mutual support groups, families, if you will.

Ms. KERMAN: Absolutely. Unusual sorts of family trees. You know, a lot of folks sort of ask salacious questions about, you know, relationships, you know, romantic relationships between women, but I think the dominant paradigm of women's relationships in prison is the mother-daughter relationship. And I think one of our call-in folks alluded to the fact that older women, women who had - were more experienced who had been doing time for a while, would sometimes take young women under their wing to help them, you know, navigate the system. And young women come in often, you know, very angry and really bucking the system. And they need to sort of figure out how to do their time.

And so older women will often, sort of take them under their wing and sometimes even, you know, younger women kind of glom on to the woman who to an older woman who they want guidance from. They want, you know, council and comfort - and sometimes some chilaquiles.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KERMAN: And even above and beyond simply that sort of quote-unquote, mother-daughter relationship, you know, you also sort of those trees, you know, and perhaps there's a woman who's kind of maternal and she's kind of maternal to more than one woman. And then you have this sort of odd sibling relationship almost - which transcends, you know, race and class and background in lots of ways.

CONAN: You also write about the different tribes. We hear a lot about the racial divisions in male prisons.

Ms. KERMAN: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: Are they the same? Are they as deep in women's prisons?

Ms. KERMAN: I don't think so. I've obviously never been a prisoner in a male prison. The first thing you can tell about somebody, when you walk into a prison, is simply what color they are or, you know, approximately what race they are. And so that's a really big organizing principle, initially. But I think that there was no sort of gang activity in any of the facilities that I was in.

And so I think the longer you're resident in a prison, the less those divisions seem to matter. A lot of interesting bonds get made, also, in the course of work and work assignments.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. KERMAN: So while initially, people might really gravitate towards the folks, you know, who are the same color as them, I think that that matters less and less the longer you're there.

CONAN: At the end of your book, I wanted one of those scrolls like you see at the end of "American Graffiti" - you know, Pop went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. You know, are you in touch with these women anymore?

Ms. KERMAN: Well, when you are released from - on a federal sentence -just about, I think, everyone who serves a federal sentence has a term of supervised release probation, which is part of your sentence. You are not actually done with your sentence. And one of the rules of probation is that you are not to have any contact with people - a person with a criminal record. That's a big barrier to people staying in touch because obviously no, but that's exactly the kind of thing you can get a violation for. So it's hard to keep in touch.

CONAN: Well, we learn a lot about these women, and a lot about Piper Kerman, in her book "Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Federal Women's Prison." Thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Ms. KERMAN: Oh, thank you, Neal. Thanks for having me on.

CONAN: Coming up, who needs an office? The latest Inc. magazine was put out without anybody stepping foot in their cubicles. We'll find out what worked and what didn't.

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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