In February 2004, Piper Kerman arrived at the women’s prison in Danbury, Conn., to serve a yearlong sentence for a drug-related crime she’d committed 10 years before.
“There’s no visiting today,” an officer told Piper when her fiancé pulled into one of the parking areas.
“I’m here to surrender,” she said.
Piper spent the next 13 months behind bars, navigating the minimum-security federal correctional facility in Danbury and other prisons in Oklahoma City and Chicago. She kept her sanity by running around an outdoor track; learning yoga from a fellow inmate; visiting with her family, friends, and fiancé on a weekly basis; performing electrical and construction work around the prison; reading; writing lots and lots of letters; and bonding with the women who were locked up with her. Her amazing new book, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, details the experience, from how she ended up in jail in the first place to what it was like waiting five years before getting sentenced. She spoke with The Frisky about why it’s important to make friends in prison and how her incarceration relates to the bigger picture.
Did you always know you wanted to write about your experience in prison?
No. This is the first thing I’ve ever published, and at the time that I was going into prison and while I was in prison, survival was number one.
There are really two reasons I wrote the book. One of them is that people were just always asking. When I came home, everyone wanted to know about the experience in lots and lots of detail. So clearly it was a subject matter and a story that had some interest to folks. The other reason I wanted to write the book was because my story relates to the stories of millions and millions of other Americans. We have a lot of people in prison — more than any other society in the world — and the number of people who are affected by that is exponential. It’s not just the folks who are in prison but the families and the communities where they come from.
Were you worried about putting yourself out there and telling the world what you had done?
Very nervous. Still am! I’m sure anyone who writes a memoir is nervous and it’s a scary thing to put yourself out there, and this is about the stupidest and most immoral thing I ever did and the resulting consequences, so it’s perhaps even more nerve-racking.
What are you hoping people will get out of reading the book?
I broke the law and I made some really bad choices, and I plead guilty and took responsibility for my actions. I think everybody has things they’ve done and look back on and think, “Ugh, what was I thinking?” whether those things were huge and dramatic or even small but important in our lives. On a lot of levels, many people, even if they may not have done something so wrong, can look at this and say, “We all make mistakes and we all pay some kind of consequences. In one way or another there’s a karmic factor.”
The other thing I hope folks draw from is that we have a serious, serious situation in this country where we incarcerate more people than anywhere else in the world. We have a prison system we currently can’t afford economically. State governments are going broke and they have huge prison line items, bigger than higher education. We can’t afford that on an economic level, but I would also say we can’t afford that on a social level or on a moral level. There are a lot of people in our prisons who are not violent or dangerous, and there are better ways for handling social problems than prison cells, especially problems associated with poverty.
Your lawyer advised you not to make any friends in prison, but your relationships with fellow prisoners obviously helped you get through the experience. Why do you think people advise against forming bonds?
I think it’s this idea that the relationships you make in prison will come back to haunt you. It reinforces that idea that you’re just going to meet terrible people who have malevolent intentions, and that’s just not what I found to be. I think it would be very hard to survive in prison without forming friendships. Literally, on day one, the prison’s not giving you toothpaste or soap for your body, so you are reliant on other prisoners for that. And on an emotional level, to survive the experience, you would be incredibly isolated if you didn’t make friends. You do need to be careful about who you make friends with, not everyone has the best intentions, but I met a lot of women there who had made mistakes in their lives, but they’re still good people.
Have you kept in touch with them?
I spent two years on probation after being released, and one of the rules of supervised release is that you’re not supposed to be in contact with anyone who has a criminal record. Of course, I was not fooling around with that. I was not going to go back to prison. There have been some folks who I have been in contact with recently in advance of the book, I reached out to a few directly because I wanted to make sure I had permission to use their real names, and a few people got in touch with me recently when they heard about the book, and that’s been really great. But there is this legal stricture, this rule that prevents folks from maintaining those very intense friendships. I do understand that rule from a public safety perspective, but also it’s a hard thing because it’s an intense experience and you form intense relationships with the folks who are going through it with you.
Do you think they’ll read the book, and will they recognize themselves in it?
I hope so. Generally, I changed the names, and in some instances I may have changed some fairly minor identifying features. I think if you lived through the experience, it’ll be familiar. It’s my perspective, so another woman would have a very different story and would potentially perceive her story and her situation in a different way. But I hope they read it, and I hope they’re happy with the way I depicted the experience and that it’s familiar to them.
What was the hardest part about coming back to the real world?
My reentry was much, much smoother and easier than that of most folks who are coming home from prison, and there are, I believe, 700,000 people coming home from prison each year. The biggest obstacles for successful reentry, for coming back and changing your life and keeping your feet on the good path, are things like housing, employment, and, especially for women, reunification with their family. Most women in prison are mothers, and a lot of them were the primary caretakers of their children, and that’s a really big challenge. I don’t have children, I had a fiancé who was waiting for me with open arms and a safe place to live, and I had a friend who created a job for me at his company, so I am incredibly fortunate.
I can’t overemphasize that reentry was much easier for me than for almost all prisoners. The people in prison are generally the people from our poorest and most vulnerable communities in the first place, and right now, the way the prison system functions, it’s sort of like a funnel that pushes people down and makes their options for a law-abiding life harder and harder. Unfortunately, it has sort of the opposite effect that people expect prison to have.
On a lighter note, really simple, everyday things blow your mind. Riding the subway and having that freedom of movement was exhilarating but also completely overwhelming.
Was it strange to see your fiancé, Larry, all the time?
Yeah, it was. Of course I missed him desperately. He came to see me every week, and that was phenomenal. A really important part of whether people come home successfully or not is how connected they’re able to be with the outside world, especially their loved ones. But it’s a big adjustment when you’ve been separated so dramatically for a year. I was very lucky. He’s a loyal and loving person, and that sort of connection with the outside world is so important to survive the experience and also to return home successfully.
Have you kept up any of the rituals you kept up there?
I still run and practice yoga, but because my life is so much less stressful than it was in prison, I’m a little more mellow about them. Yoga really saved my life in a lot of ways.
What else did you learn in prison that you’ve applied to your life on the outside?
There are two things that I’ve really thought about a lot.
I would never want to re-meet them under those circumstances. I would prefer to see them in the free world. As much as Larry and my family and the outside world were incredibly important in terms of getting through this experience, the people who are going through it right next to you are ultimately the most important. I think about them every day.
The other thing that is so important to me, and also about the prison system, is this: Indifference to the suffering of other people is what allows crime to happen. It’s certainly true in the case of my own crime. Indifference to the fact that I was involved with drugs, and people are addicted to drugs, and that addiction is devastating. That wasn’t something that I was not acknowledging. I was detached from that fact of other people suffering. The prison system completely reinforces that because the system as a whole is indifferent to the people who are living in it. And people in prison have committed crimes and caused suffering in many, many cases, and that’s important, but the way the system operates currently is that it reinforces that as opposed to correcting it. I think that’s incredibly important to think about, because we have a prison system that costs $60 billion a year and it’s not really doing what it’s supposed to do.
How do you think the system could be changed for the better?
One thing that would make a really big difference is if probation and parole were strengthened because then people who commit crimes could be safely supervised in the community rather than being shipped off to prisons. And that’s a much better way of punishing crime without the devastating effect of a prison term. Probation and parole are not as strong as they should be. If we shifted resources out of prison cells and toward probation and parole, that could make a really big difference. Reform and improvement in the juvenile justice system would make a huge difference. I’m sure we can all understand that a juvenile justice system that really helped young people really transform their lives would make a huge difference. I think reentry programs are really important, but we have to be smart about how to avoid sending people to prison in the first place.
Right now there are really compelling reasons for reform because of economics, not just because of social or moral question of reform. To spend money on prisons when we’re cutting teachers and police is crazy. Generally, it costs a minimum of $20,000 a year to imprison somebody — California spends $47,000 a year — and that’s just a staggering amount of money per prisoner. It’s not yielding the public safety results that people imagine, and I think it’s becoming apparent to more people that this is a bad use of taxpayer dollars. There is this economic necessity right now if we want to have things like teachers and health care. We have to allocate those resources in a more intelligent way, and you know what? Stronger education and stronger health care would have a direct impact on crime and public safety.
How often do you think about your time in prison?
Every day. I don’t know if you could live in that world and have that kind of experience and not think about it every day. It’s an immersive situation. You are literally placed in another world. Even the most minor, everyday things might remind me of prison — food, or getting on the subway, or fixing the electricity in my apartment — those very mundane things can trigger all sorts of thoughts and memories. And, of course, writing the book and some of my work makes me think about the bigger picture, as well.
Piper Kerman’s memoir, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, is out today.