Orange is the New Black author Piper Kerman says her time behind bars taught her that justice in America depends on income and skin color. Ms Kerman’s memoir about her stint in federal prison between 2003 and 2004 is now a hit Netflix series starring Taylor Schilling, Laura Prepon and Jason Biggs.
‘My time in the US criminal justice system made very real to me the huge inequality amongst Americans,’ Ms Kerman said in a new interview with MailOnline.
‘I think that I had to discover and rely on my best self to survive the prison system,’ Ms Kerman said. After wondering if she would ‘be pegged the snotty rich bitch’ after seeing ‘very West Side story’ dorms with names like ‘The Suburbs’, ‘The Ghetto’ and ‘Spanish Harlem’, she quickly figured out that her best chance of survival was learning to fit in. She says that it was the sense of community that made her time behind bars bearable. Small acts of kindness, like a fellow prisoner buying her a root beer float when she couldn’t access her commissary account, take on seismic importance.
While most prisoners do not have a high school education, Kerman had a degree, access to good lawyers and a fiance who wrote New York Times editorials about her plight.
‘I was mercifully not subjected to prison healthcare,’ she says, adding Netflix scene in which a woman is strapped to a bed and forced to take anti-psychotic medication isn’t that far removed from reality.
‘I believe that prisoners who do not want to take medication can be forced to comply with prison healthcare orders.’
She also got an up close and personal look at the cycle of addiction, and understand the role her crime played in the drug trade that affected so many of their lives. Despite the differences, Ms Kerman began to discover how closely their lives were linked – and could tell their story in a relatable way.
Show creator Jenji Kohan has said: ‘You know, you’re not gonna go into a network and say, “I want to talk about black women and Latina women and old women in prison.” You need a way in. She was our gateway drug.’
The show also depicts the lighter moments and sometimes-bizarre prison routines. Some used prescription medicines and cigarettes to pass the time; Ms Kerman took up Dominos.To battle boredom she also gossiped, read, microwaved ‘prison cheesecake’ from stolen butter, got prison pedicures from a fellow inmate, and discovered feminine hygiene products could be to MacGyver everything from mops to makeshift dildos.
‘We mainly used them as cleaning implements,’ she admitted. ‘I was impressed with the show’s use of them in costuming.’
She still thinks about her time in prison – and the women she spent time with – every day and stays in touch with many of them.
‘I have been in touch with the friends I made in prison, some for many years, and some have been in touch since the book published or the show aired,’ she says. ‘I am very grateful for these friendships.’
Since her release, Ms Kerman has become an advocate for prison reform through work with organizations including the Women’s Prison Organization.She admits that she was lucky: A friend created a job for her in his company. Most women, she says,don’t have that option.
‘The biggest obstacle for people coming home to live a legal life is getting a job; so employment programs that teach real skills and connect people to opportunity on the outside would make a huge difference,’ she explains.’However, it would be most effective to invest in education and employment opportunity earlier, so we don’t spend huge sums on prisons and jails in the first place.’
She’s also gone from threatening to drown her ex-girlfriend in a toilet to forgiving her – and forgiving herself.
She wrote: ‘If I could forgive myself, I could prove that I was a strong, good person who could take responsibility for the path that I had chosen for myself, and all the consequences of that action.’