Interview: Piper Kerman, Author Of 'Orange Is The New Black' When she was 24, Piper Kerman dated a woman who was part of a drug smuggling ring. Years later, after being named as part of that ring, Kerman served time in a federal prison and at one point shared a cell with her former girlfriend. Her memoir of that experience inspired the Netflix series.

Behind 'The New Black': The Real Piper's Prison Story

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The new Netflix series "Orange is the New Black" is based on the memoir of the same name by my guest, Piper Kerman, about the year she spent in a minimum-security women's prison. Tomorrow, we'll hear from the creator of the Netflix adaptation of "Orange is the New Black," Jenji Kohan, who also created the Showtime series "Weeds."

Piper Kerman was a 24-year-old graduate of Smith College in 1993, when she flew to Belgium with a suitcase of money intended for a West African drug lord. This misguided adventure began when she entered into a romantic relationship with a woman who was part of what Kerman describes as a clique of impossibly stylish and cool lesbians in their mid-30s.

That woman was involved with a drug smuggling ring and got Kerman involved, too. Kerman left that life after several months. It wasn't until five years later that she was named as part of a drug conspiracy ring. In February 2004, she reported to the federal correction institution in Danbury, Conn.

Piper Kerman is now a vice president at a Washington, D.C.-based communications firm that works with foundations and nonprofits, and she serves on the board of the Women's Prison Association. Let's start with a scene from the first episode of "Orange is the New Black." Piper, played by Taylor Schilling, is eating one of her first prison meals at a cafeteria table with several other inmates including Nicky, played by Natasha Lyonne. A woman named Red, played by Kate Mulgrew, walks over and gives each woman, except Piper, a container of yogurt. Red speaks first.


KATE MULGREW: (As Galina 'Red' Reznikov) Who's this?

NATASHA LYONNE: (As Nicky Nichols) This is Chapman. She's new; self-surrender; thinks she's fancy.

MULGREW: (As Red) Here, Fancy, have a yogurt.

TAYLOR SCHILLING: (As Piper Chapman) What do I have to do for it?

MULGREW: (As Red) You're new. You're one of us. Consider it a gift.

SCHILLING: (As Piper) Thank you, thank you so much. The food here is disgusting. What?

LYONNE: (As Nicky) Did I mention that Red runs the kitchen?

SCHILLING: (As Piper) (BLEEP) I'm sorry.

MULGREW: (As Red) Honey, I know you just got here, so you don't know what's what, but I'm going to tell you. You don't like the food? It's no problem.

LYONNE: (As Nicky) Holy (BLEEP) that was an epic (BLEEP).

GROSS: Piper Kerman, welcome to FRESH AIR. So if we watch the Netflix series, how much of your actual experience are we really seeing in there? Like, how accurate is it to what really happened?

PIPER KERMAN: The television show, the Netflix series, is an adaptation, and there are tremendous liberties taken. What that means is that when you watch the show, you will see moments of my life sort of leap off the screen, such as, you know, Larry Bloom's proposal to Piper Chapman is not so very different from the way that my husband, Larry Smith, proposed to me.

When Piper Chapman insults Red, who - you know - runs the kitchen with an iron fist, that is actually very closely derived from what's in the book, and from my own life. But there are other parts of the show which are tremendous departures, and you know, pure fiction dreamed up by Jenji Kohan and by her remarkable team of writers.

GROSS: So you were sent to Danbury Women's Prison in Connecticut, and you were in a section of about 200 women. Would you describe the actual physical place?

KERMAN: It's a heavily fortified building with a vicious-looking, razor-wire fence around it. And then there's the prison camp, which sits outside of that horrible, razor-wire fence. The building itself sort of looks like a 1970s elementary school.


KERMAN: It was built to house Watergate prisoners, the men at that time who were sent to prison for their involvement in the Watergate break-in. And it's a cruddy, old building; and the ceiling leaks, and the entire building floods every time that there's a heavy rain. And the thing that is really striking about every prison I've ever set foot in is just the incredible drabness of the physical landscape.

So prisons are generally built out of cinderblock. They're painted gray or beige, and it's just all hard surfaces, linoleum floors. And so one of the things that's so striking is that it is cacophonously loud in prisons everywhere. Sound is just always bouncing off of metal, off of concrete, off of linoleum.

GROSS: What were the range of crimes that the women in your unit were in for?

KERMAN: So in the minimum security camp at Danbury, there were generally between 200 and 250 women, depending on crowding; and the vast majority of those women were there for drug offenses. There were also women there for crimes that touch the financial system. So a lot of fraud - so medical fraud or bank fraud; you know, things like stealing Social Security numbers or credit card fraud.

But I would say that those sort of vaguely white-collar offenses were probably the - you know, I don't know, maybe 20 percent of the prisoners. And the vast majority were there for really low-level drug offenses. There were, you know, definitely folks who had sort of outlier offenses, which would generally be known by most of the people, the prisoners and the guards who were there, even though it is verboten to actually ask people directly what their offense is. That is considered very, very poor prison etiquette.

GROSS: What were your biggest fears going in?

KERMAN: My biggest fear going into prison was violence, and that is understandable because the way that prisons and prisoners are depicted in this country typically is, you know, that these are institutions which are filled with people who are uncontrollably violent. And that was simply not what I found.

In fact personally, I never witnessed an act of violence, an act of physical violence, while I was incarcerated; and I was in three different prisons during my time locked up. Some prisons in this country are very violent; very, very dangerous places. When you have a prison system as large as ours, in this country, of course there's going to be an incredible variety of institutions. But when I went to prison, you know, my fears of violence were misplaced.

GROSS: You write that when you got to prison and you saw what it was like, you became less afraid of physical violence because you hadn't seen any evidence of it inside. But you remained concerned about getting cursed out, or publicly messing up by either breaking a prison rule or a prisoner's rule. Did you knowingly or unknowingly break either sets of those rules before you understood what the rules were?

KERMAN: There is this incredibly steep learning curve. So first of all, you have to learn and understand all of the rules of the institution, all the rules that are enforced by the guards and by the wardens. And those include things like, you know, the daily counts when every single person within a unit is counted and - you know, there's a host of rules both reasonable and unreasonable.

And what's confusing about that is that they are selectively enforced, and frequently broken by the prison staff themselves. The other set of rules that you have to learn very, very quickly are the unofficial rules. And so that could be anything from not taking, you know, someone's habitual seat at the movie night - you don't want to sit in the wrong place because, you know, you will be pretty quickly corrected on that - to, you know, not asking someone directly, you know, what their offense is because that's considered very, very rude.

You have to figure all those things out, and what you really have to figure out is where you fit in in the social ecology of the prison, and...

GROSS: Where did you fit in? Because you - I don't know what the racial makeup of your unit was, but you're a white, middle-class - maybe upper-middle-class, you know - woman who went to like, Smith College. You're very educated. So I don't know if you were totally atypical within the prison population or not.

KERMAN: In Danbury, at the time that I was there, the demographic makeup of the prison, you know, it was probably about 45 percent Latino, about 25 percent African-American, about 25 percent white. I was not the only middle-class woman there. You know, there were middle-class white women, black women, Latino women there.

But we were definitely not the majority. Most people in the prison system lack even a high school diploma. So I definitely stuck out, in terms of being a college-educated woman who, you know, I was very fortunate. I had been professionally successful for many years before I was sent to prison.

So trying to figure out where you fit in isn't necessarily all about your class and your race, though. It's very much about you as an individual, and what do you have actually to contribute to this community. Where will you fit in? Where will you put your energy and your time?

GROSS: What did you figure out you had to contribute?

KERMAN: Well, you know, I immediately was assigned to work as an electrician. I had hoped to be a teacher in...

GROSS: Like your character in the Netflix series.

KERMAN: Yes, that is...

GROSS: Isn't that really up her alley, in terms of her particular skills?


KERMAN: I had requested and hoped to be assigned to the GED program and to teach, but I was not. I was assigned to the electric shop, and so...

GROSS: You know, that makes no sense. I mean, you're obviously so educated. I'm guessing here that you were probably an English major. You probably could have really helped in the GED program. Why would they assign you, who probably has no electrical aptitude, to that program?


KERMAN: The description is always institutional need. The prison system is very arbitrary, and not necessarily always very sensible. So I can't necessarily offer a lot of insight on the assignment other than that they needed somebody - they needed a warm body in the electrical shop.

But here's the thing. Because I worked in construction and maintenance services, I was able to fix things. And so one of the ways that I tried to find my way within that community was by being handy. And I didn't necessarily think of myself as a particularly handy person before I went to prison, but that is one of the ways that I found my footing.

I fixed things for folks. I put up hooks. I fixed people's beds. You know, when I insulted, you know, the woman who ran the kitchen, I really did need to make amends to her in some ways. She was not starving me out, in the way that the character on the TV show is punished. But - you know - she was not feeling a lot of love for me.

But it turns out that her bed was really, really giving her pain, and I managed to rig her bed up so it was less painful for her to sleep at night. And for that, she sort of allowed me back into her good graces.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Piper Kerman. And her memoir, "Orange is the New Black," about her year in a women's prison, is the basis of the Netflix series of the same name. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Piper Kerman. And her memoir about her year in a minimum security prison, which is called "Orange is the New Black," is the book that was adapted into the popular Netflix series of the same name.

In the Netflix series there's, you know, several guards, and they range from a guard who seems to be really nice, who's kind of getting involved in this close relationship with one of the prisoners, and then there's another guard who's a real sadist. What was the range of guards that you were exposed to when you were in Danbury?

KERMAN: Correctional officers come into that profession from a variety of places. In the federal system, a lot of folks come from the armed services, and then they begin working for the Bureau of Prisons. I encountered a lot of folks who were just trying to get through the day. I think being a correctional officer is not a fun job.

I encountered a handful of folks who were really kind and thoughtful, and engaged with the lives of the prisoners in ways that were sometimes really profound; and a small kindness from a prison officer, or a staffer, can sometimes really mean the world. There were also a very, very small number of folks - men, in my experience - who really made it their business to make life miserable for prisoners. And one prison guard can make hundreds and hundreds of prisoners' lives unbearable.

GROSS: There's a lot of times when you're frisked, when you're in prison. And for one of the guards, that's an opportunity to feel women up - one of the male guards. Is that something you experienced in prison, or is that something that was written for the Netflix series?

KERMAN: I - like, I think most of the women that I knew in Danbury frequently experienced, you know, that really simple and straightforward groping, which is a total violation. It's really low-level sexual abuse, but it is really persistent and pervasive. And so that would happen all the time and generally, that would happen in the course of going in or out of the visiting room. So it's particularly jarring to sort of have that kind of a violation happen just as you're about to go and try and have a really positive experience with your loved ones.

GROSS: Now, if this was at an office, there would be - hopefully - an HR office to report it to, but it's a prison. So is there somebody who you go to and say, "this guard is groping women and that should not be, it violates prison rules, do something about it"?

KERMAN: Sexual abuse within women's prisons is very, very pervasive and happens in probably just about every single women's prison or jail in this country, sometimes in much more extreme and horrible and violent ways than what I experienced. The truth of the matter is, prisoners have a very low level of confidence that their concerns will be addressed.

And what you see happen, typically, in a situation when a guard or a staffer has been accused of sexual abuse is that they are not immediately removed from the prison. Sometimes, they're put on a different kind of duty assignment; but whatever investigation might take place, will take place very slowly. Prisoners fear retribution if they make an accusation against a prison staffer or a guard. And one of the things that's really frightening, that can happen if you say that you've been sexually abused, is that you'll be put in solitary. You'll be put in "the shoe," allegedly for your protection. But there's not a prisoner alive who wants to go to the shoe. The shoe is horrible.

GROSS: Were you ever in it?

KERMAN: I was fortunately never in the shoe, but it happens all the time and specifically with women who say that they've been sexually assaulted. They are frequently put in the shoe, you know, allegedly for their protection. But it is a huge disincentive for folks to say, this is something that's happening to me; or, this is something that's happening to other women in this unit.

GROSS: In both the Netflix series and in your memoir, there's a lot of what you call tribalism. For instance, you write when a new prisoner comes in, if they're white, they're welcomed by the white prisoners. If they're African-American, they're welcomed by the African-American prisoners; ditto for the - you know, if you're Latino, you get the Latino welcome.

And the people from your tribe who welcome you also kind of help you out at the beginning, help orient you. And things sound like they remain tribal. For instance, in the Netflix series - and you can tell us if it was this way in reality - when it's time to elect the prison council, each, quote, "tribe" elects their own representative. So there's the black member; there's the Latino member, the white member. So would you describe some of the ways that tribalism figured into your prison term, in Danbury?

KERMAN: The first day I arrived, I was processed in through R&D, which is in the main prison facility. And so I experienced the prison guards, and they were scary. And then I was put into the general population, in the unit where I would be living, and I was really scared. And women began to approach me, and they said things like, do you need some shower shoes? Do you need some toothpaste? Can I make you a cup of coffee? This is a really bad day, Kerman, but it's going to get better, a little bit better, tomorrow.

And that was the phenomenon of the welcome wagon, and all of those women were white. And so the welcome wagon is organized, it is a true phenomenon, you know, that was not true only for me; that happens generally for each new prisoner who comes in, and it is organized along racial lines. So white women step forward and give the white woman who's new, you know, the shower shoes or whatever she might need because the prison does not provide things like toothpaste.

So when you are first setting foot into this unit, into this strange, new community which you'll be living in, you know, race is a really powerful organizing principle. What I found is that over time, it was less and less important. So my work assignment in the electric shop was not made along racial lines. And so, you know, I had co-workers who were, you know, black and Latino and Asian.

And another phenomenon that you touched upon was this idea of prison families, and that was a really fascinating and powerful way that people survived in prison - is that they formed these sort of, you know, informal prison families; sometimes with a mama and sometimes a papa and, you know, a mama would have her quote-unquote "kids" - you know, younger women, generally, who she took under her wing.

And sometimes, those women would feed, you know, the younger prisoners; and just generally sort of care for them and counsel them, and comfort them. My prison family ended up being, you know, with that formidable, you know, the boss of the kitchen. You know, she was my - essentially - mama. And her family - like, her little prison family was co-ed.

You know, she had black daughters and white daughters and, you know, it was less tribal, in some way,s than what is depicted in the show.

GROSS: Piper Kerman will be back in the second half of the show. Her memoir "Orange is the New Black" is the basis of the Netflix series of the same name. Tomorrow we'll talk with the creator of the series, Jenji Kohan. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Piper Kerman, author of the memoir "Orange is the New Black," about the year she spent in a minimum-security women's prison on a drug offense. In 1993, after graduating Smith College, she got involved with a drug-smuggling ring through her girlfriend, and carried a suitcase of drug money. Kerman left that life after a few months and thought she'd put it all behind her. But five years later, she was named as part of a drug conspiracy. It wasn't until 2004 that she was sent to the federal correction institution in Danbury, Conn. Her memoir is the basis of the new Netflix series "Orange is the New Black" Kerman is now a vice president at a communications firm that works with nonprofits, and she serves on the board of the Women's Prison Association.

In your book, before you go into prison, your lawyer tells you, don't make any friends inside. And in the Netflix series, one of the prison officials gives that same advice to the character who is based on you. He says, don't make any friends inside. Did you think you should take that advice seriously, and did you?

KERMAN: I probably thought that I should take that advice seriously, but I certainly did not. And frankly, I don't know how you would survive prison without forming friendships. It seems - it seems impossibly lonely, isolating, dangerous even, to try to survive prison without friendships.

GROSS: So what do you think the warning was about? Was it a warning, really, about like, there's lesbians there; be careful? Or was the warning like, if you make friends you will be deceived; it will just be a way of using you?

KERMAN: I think that the warning for me was, you will meet people in prison who are from completely different walks of life from you; and if you leave prison with those friendships in place, those friendships will be problematic for you. And I don't agree with that. But I intuit that that is what that advice was about.

GROSS: In the Netflix series, the woman who had been your lover back in your college and post-college days, who got you into the trouble that you got into - she's the one who asked you to carry the briefcase of drug money - in the Netflix series, she's in the same prison you are, in the same unit. It wasn't that way in real life, was it?

KERMAN: It's interesting to me; folks are constantly trying to analyze, you know, what's realistic and what's unrealistic about the TV show. And one of the things that is drawn from the book is the fact that I ended up face-to-face with my ex-lover in prison. It happens in a very different way in real life, and in the book, than it does in the show. But, you know, in truth, I ended up sharing a cell with my ex-lover.

GROSS: Sharing a cell with her?


KERMAN: Yes. And her sister - you know, her sister was also there. Her sister was also involved, and spent a lot of time in prison. So...

GROSS: Well, that seems so impossible to me. Like, if that was written into fiction, I'd say, oh, come on.

KERMAN: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Truth is much stranger than fiction, when it comes to the criminal justice system.

GROSS: What kind of terms were you on with each other then? Were you blaming her for the fact that you had been implicated in this, you know, quote, "drug conspiracy," you know, for telling on you? Did you...

KERMAN: Actually, I am - one of the things that I am most grateful for is the fact that this strange, you know, happenstance of the universe brought me face-to-face with her during that time because I was really holding onto a lot of blame, actually, in terms of saying, oh, you know, I'm here because of her. And actually being able to confront her brought me to the point of recognition that my situation was my own responsibility and my own fault.

She offered me a, quote-unquote, "opportunity," but I chose to take it. You know, she didn't hold a gun to my head. She didn't make me do anything. She asked me, and I said yes. And so I think that if I had not been brought face-to-face with her, I would never have gotten quite to that point of taking full responsibility for my own actions.

GROSS: Did you become close again?

KERMAN: One of the things which is really astonishing, and humbling, to me is the fact that ultimately, the things that you have in common with somebody are much more important than the things that are potentially dividing you. And so we were brought face-to-face in very, very difficult circumstances, towards the end of my experience in prison. And because we were able to confront each other in terms of, you know, hey, what am I doing here? What are you doing here? And sort of move beyond that, you know, I was able to get to a place where we were able to be friendly again, and I'm grateful for that.

GROSS: How many years was she doing?

KERMAN: She was sentenced to nine years in prison.

GROSS: Is she still in?

KERMAN: She has been released since then.

GROSS: Have you seen each other?

KERMAN: We have not.

GROSS: In the Netflix series, some lesbian women tried to hook up with other women and get them to be their, quote, "wife," and somebody approaches your character and wants your character to be her wife. Did that happen much inside? Did that happen directly to you?

KERMAN: So what I observed is that there is this huge continuum of sexuality that you see within a woman's prison. You see, you know, women who come in off the streets who are lesbians or who are bisexual who, of course, continue to be lesbians and bisexuals while they're in prison. You see women who are perhaps identified as straight who go, quote-unquote, "gay for the stay," which was hammered into us in our orientation by the prison guards - like, don't be gay for the stay. Don't be gay for the stay.

You know, it's really interesting to watch how people try to get some comfort and some human contact while they're in this place, which is incredibly harsh and really dehumanizing. So that sexual liveliness is really important, in a lot of ways, though it's also very dangerous, in some senses; first of all, because it's against the rules and can get you locked up in solitary again. There are definitely folks who want to sort of - the expression is turn somebody out. So if a woman comes in who is ostensibly straight, and if she can be seduced, then that is - that's considered a great accomplishment. But I didn't actually see very much of that at all. I didn't see sexual relationships which were based on coercion between prisoners. I think that between guards and prisoners, you do see that, but I did not see coercive sexual relationships between prisoners.

GROSS: So when the guards said to you, don't be gay for the stay, were they saying that because it's against prison rules to have a sexual relationship - or were they saying that for other reasons?

KERMAN: I think that prison guards and staff A, want to enforce the rules. So the rules are that there is supposed to be no sexual contact. I think that homophobia, you know, also drives a lot of that don't-be-gay-for-the-stay rhetoric. And finally, you know, the inherent conflict and drama that can arise from romantic relationships, you know, can be troublesome or problematic for the prison staff and for that reason, they also try to put a damper on that.

GROSS: So now that you're out of prison, are there rights that you will never have again? Like, can you vote?

KERMAN: I live in New York, so it happens that I am able to vote. But if I lived in many, many states in this country - and certainly, in all of the states in the Deep South - I would not be able to get my right to vote back because I have a felony conviction. So this is really important. So if we look at states like Florida or Virginia - really important swing states - there are huge percentages of the population in those states which are disenfranchised because they have felony convictions. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Florida is one of 12 states with the harshest restrictions on restoring voting rights to people with felony convictions. The others are Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia and Wyoming.]

GROSS: You were lucky. You've done really well since leaving prison. You work for a public relations and communications group that handles nonprofit organizations. You have a very successful memoir that has been adapted into the Netflix series "Orange is the New Black." You're active in prison reform. Like, you've found your place and you haven't hidden from your past. In fact, you've used your past to try to help others and you've told your story and so on. But when I got out of prison and didn't know what was ahead of you, did you try to cover up the fact that you were in? How do you handle that out on your resume when you're looking for a job? How do you handle that you've just gotten out of prison?

KERMAN: My situation coming home from prison was so much more fortunate in myriad ways than from most people coming home from prison or jail. First and most important, I had a safe and stable place to live. And second most important, I had a job waiting for me. I can't overstate how important access to work is for folks to be successful coming home from prison and to live a legal life.

GROSS: Was it the job you'd held before going in?

KERMAN: It was not. And it was a job, I had a friend who ran the company and he created a job in the marketing department of his company for me. And I was in that job for under a year and then I made a transition to the public interest communications work that I do now. But 99.9 percent of people coming home from prison and jail do not have that powerful network of friends to help them and friends and former co-workers.

For me I had been, I've always been pretty upfront about my experience. Even before I went to prison I sort of had this entire coming-out moment where I had to sort of go around and talk to friends and to co-workers and to former co-workers, former employers about what was about to happen to me. And I made the decision early on not to hide my criminal conviction but rather to talk about it because I think one of the issues with a prison complex - you know, we have the biggest prison population in the world and we have the biggest prison population in human history in the U.S. And I think if people hide the facts of their experience, then it allows folks to continue to, you know, sort of pretend that what's happening in our criminal justice system isn't happening. But I think the more that people give voice to what their experiences are in the criminal justice system, the more other folks will question whether we're doing the right thing.

GROSS: Piper Kerman, thank you so much. Glad you told your story.

KERMAN: Thank you.

GROSS: And glad it's been made into such an interesting Netflix series.

KERMAN: Thank you so much, Terry. It's really nice of you to invite me to come and talk.

GROSS: Piper Kerman is the author of the memoir "Orange is the New Black." You can read an excerpt on our website Tomorrow we'll talk with the creator of the Netflix adaptation of the book, Jenji Kohan.

Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward profiles the record producer nicknamed "The Crazy Cajun," Huey P. Meaux. This is FRESH AIR.


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