From Cell to Screen
Orange Is the New Black’s Piper Kerman on prison, sensationalism and sex
By M. Brianna Stallings
For folks of a certain age who come from a certain background, danger’s temptations are as chic as Blahniks and a Birkin bag. For a young Piper Kerman, a self-proclaimed New England WASP, those temptations came in the form of a charismatic ex-girlfriend who roped Kerman into laundering money as part of an international heroin smuggling ring in the early ’90s. After she and her ex parted ways, Kerman traded in her roaring twenties for the life of a seemingly normal New York woman, complete with professional success and a doting partner, now-husband Larry Smith.
That is, until her past caught up with her. In 2004 Kerman went from rich girl to convict and was sentenced to 15 months at a federal women’s correctional facility in Connecticut. She recounted her experience in the New York Times-bestselling memoir Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, later adapted by Jenji Kohan (creator of “Weeds”) into an award-winning Netflix original series. The show, which was renewed for a second season before the first one even aired, was a 2013 Must-Binge-Watch for millions of Netflix viewers (myself included)—and for good reason. Protagonist Piper dives headlong into a microcosm full of colorful characters with nicknames like Crazy Eyes, Taystee and Pennsatucky, and the results are at once sexy, harrowing, poignant and unapologetic. Trailers for the hotly anticipated Season 2 of OITNB, to be released June 6, promise all of the passion, drama and dark humor that devoted fans have come to expect.
There’s so much hot and heavy action that it could almost seem implausible. Kerman does admit the need for certain embellishments when translating a story for a viewing audience. “One of the challenges—in terms of writing a book and in terms of filmed entertainment—is that a big part of doing time is the incredible slowness,” she said. “That’s not something you can put on the screen because you’d lose viewers really quickly.
Meanwhile, Kerman continues to use her voice as an outspoken advocate for criminal justice reform. She serves on the board of the Women's Prison Association, and in February, testified before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights at a hearing on "Reassessing Solitary Confinement." Kerman appears in Albuquerque Thursday, May 8, at UNM’s Woodward Hall, as part of a fundraiser for the New Mexico Women’s Justice Project sponsored by Bookworks and the UNM Women’s Resource Center.
In a recent phone interview with the Alibi, Kerman spoke about the success of—and differences between—print and screen, as well as her hopes for prison reform.
Kerman continues to be amazed by the amount of attention her memoir and Kohan’s adaptation have received. “The book is the first thing I’ve ever written for publication. I’m just grateful that the book found readers and such a varied spectrum of them.
“I knew, in turning over the book to Jenji to adapt, that she would do something creative and provocative,” Kerman continued. “The response to the show has been really exciting.”
The New York Daily News recently published an interview with Kerman’s notorious ex, Catherine Cleary Wolters. In the article Wolters addresses the impending release of her own prison memoir. Kerman was measured and diplomatic in her response to Wolters’ book. “Cleary has had a very different life than mine. If she chooses to tell her own story, I think that it has the potential to be a really interesting read.”
A magnanimous argument for Wolters’ memoir is that more voices sharing this narrative could mean a greater possibility of prison reform instead of just sensationalism. “That’s also the wonderful choice that Jenji made with the show,” Kerman said. “It’s about many different female protagonists and not just focused on one. That’s the show’s strength, and part of the reason that people have responded to it so powerfully; it’s about this incredible community of women.”
Another part of OITNB’s appeal is its uninhibited depiction of sex behind bars. In fact, there’s so much hot and heavy action that it could almost seem implausible. Kerman does admit the need for certain embellishments when translating a story for a viewing audience. “One of the challenges—in terms of writing a book and in terms of filmed entertainment—is that a big part of doing time is the incredible slowness,” she said. “That’s not something you can put on the screen because you’d lose viewers really quickly.
“That’s a big difference between the book and the show; my year in prison was celibate,” she continued with a laugh. “But women’s sexuality is important, so I don’t think that it’s a mistake for Jenji to include that in her vision.”
Kerman, in turn, recognizes the responsibility that comes with being a woman of privilege and having the freedom to act on it. She now seeks to use her post-prison agency in a constructive way to help others, acknowledging, “There’s no reason to care about my story individually. The reason that my story is relevant to anyone is because it connects to the lives of other millions of Americans who are affected by the criminal justice system—whether those people are locked up in prison, or they are family members and children of people that are incarcerated.”
Today, as a prison reform advocate, Kerman is “very focused on near-term reform and what can be done on the most immediate fronts. I’m optimistic as we see that 17 states have enacted significant prison, correctional or criminal justice reforms, and none of them have seen increases in crime.”
What about possible reforms right here in our own backyard? Information provided by the prison advocacy group New Mexico Women’s Justice Project states that “contrary to national trends, the female prison population in New Mexico has been increasing.” Still, Kerman finds hope in the state’s Criminal Justice Reform Subcommittee. “I think that the Subcommittee will come out with very good recommendations,” she said, “and I hope that the rest of the Legislature and Governor Martinez take them seriously.”
New Mexico Women’s Justice Project Fundraiser
with Piper Kerman, author of Orange Is the New Black
Thursday, May 8, 7pm
UNM Woodward Hall
UNM campus, west of the Student Union Building
Tickets: $5 at the door, $20 priority seating and signing
Available at Bookworks (4022 Rio Grande NW, 344-8139) or online at bkwrks.com/piper-kerman
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