Incarceration, Prison Reforms and Hit Television: Best-Selling Author Piper Kerman

By Christopher Hill –

Piper Kerman

Expectations. We are both blessed and cursed to follow a prescribed path.  Our family’s status, education and economic conditions all help to create this probability. Such was the world of Piper Kerman.

Born to an educated and professional family, Kerman’s life was following that prescribed path. A comfortable upbringing of wealth and access led her to Smith College, a private, all-women’s liberal arts school on the East Coast. Post-graduation was a time of rebellion for her, followed by settling down and her eventual move to a professional career of her own, with marriage on the horizon. It was as it was supposed to be — until it wasn’t.

Unbeknownst to Kerman, her time of rebellion had a long tail that was arcing back toward her. During her defiant days, a woman she had been romantically involved with had introduced her to a new world of exotic travel and money laundering for a Nigerian drug lord. Kerman’s past met up with her present when customs officers knocked on her door. That former romantic partner had named her as part of a plea deal. Six years later, the young woman of prominence defied expectations and pleaded guilty to charges of money laundering and drug trafficking. She was sentenced to FCI Danbury, an all-female, minimum-security prison in Danbury, Connecticut.

“The thing that I feared most, what everyone, I think, would fear most is violence, but I was not scared for my life,” shared Kerman.  “However, even a prison where you’re physically safe is still a scary place –  feelings of duress, of domination, of control or being controlled.  But that is more to do with the way the system is inherently structured.”

Once there, Kerman learned first-hand about the inequities in a world she had only viewed through an outsider’s eyes. The expectations there were minimal and free from grandeur. Through the eyes of other inmates, she saw the weight stacked against them. She came to understand their view of survival as an aspiration, not an expectation.

Inside, she saw many prisoners without the educational basis for a life on the outside. They were unprepared coming in, unimproved inside and not surprisingly, unsuccessful outside the prison walls.

“So the access to books and the access to education is very important,” said Kerman. “If we simply did a better job on that front, we would have fewer people in prison. Almost all jails have GED programs, but very few jails have any sort of educational programing. It’s hugely important for people to get access to books, simply because many people have to better themselves on their own steam.”

A friend recommended Kerman write a blog to pass the time, but it wasn’t until she was released her story, their story, began to take root. Her fiancé recommended that she write down her thoughts and share what she had learned, although this wasn’t to be a how-to book.

“It’s quite the opposite,” said Kerman. “More of a what-not-to-do book. A cautionary tale.”

Her experiences became Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison. Three years later, Netflix debuted a series by almost the same name and put social injustice in living rooms around the world. While the series would sensationalize her experiences, it is the core of her journey that resonates on screen.

“What’s important to me is that the scenes in the book are themes around race, class, gender, power, friendship and empathy. Those are the things that are important to me. Those are totally present in the show in ways that people really respond to. That makes me happy, because a book asks readers to relate to them and even identify with them and try to imagine what if it was me? I believe we have to think about the 2.3 million people who are incarcerated, and the many millions more who have experienced incarceration, and at some point, we have to remember how much we have in common with one another.”

Now going into its sixth season – and already renewed for a seventh –  the Netflix show has long run past the tenure of her book. As a consultant on the show, she is there to answer the writers’ questions and to ensure that realism remains in the series.

Seeing a part of your life immortalized on screen can be awkward, but not for Piper Kerman. “Piper Chapman is a creation of Jenji Kohan’s writing and Taylor Schilling’s acting,” said Kerman.  “And I’m very fond of both of those ladies.  Taylor is delightful. It’s funny. Taylor is from Massachusetts where I grew up, and we come from similar towns. She is really lovely, and I think she does a good job. I’m delighted that the show has met with such wide interest from lots of different audiences.”

It would be easy to conclude the story here. However, Danbury changed Kerman’s trajectory. Forever altered, she is using her pulpit to shine a spotlight on America’s love affair with incarceration.

Kerman and her husband Larry now reside in Columbus, Ohio, where she teaches non-fiction writing classes at Marion Correctional Institute and the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, Ohio. She is writing a new book about those experiences to continue a dialogue with America about what incarceration could be versus what it is.

“Anything that affords an opportunity for people to be creative and think and grow, write or draw or anything like that in a correctional setting, I think it’s fantastic, because it is an environment that encourages people to lock down intellectually and emotionally. Anything that sort of combats that is really useful.”

Kerman also takes her experiences to Capitol Hill, having appeared several times to discuss the necessary steps to improve the statistics of incarceration and recidivism. Recently, some of those steps have proven difficult to climb, but she sees progress in our states, especially in the Lone Star State.

“When we look at what the states are doing, in many cases the states have been making lots and lots of progress over the last 10 years, including Texas,” said Kerman.  “People often talk to me about ‘prison reform,’ and there’s not really any such thing as prison reform, right? It’s really about reform of the system, and you have a whole set of steps. You have policing, you have the courts, you have jails and prisons, and then you have that process of reentry and probation and return to the community after someone has been incarcerated.”

Where she sees steps going backward is at the federal level. It is the states that give her optimism. “What’s really interesting is that it doesn’t really matter whether a state is a red state or a blue state; both are making lots of progress. Actually, Texas really led the way. The Texas Public Policy Institute was one of the very first organizations in Texas that began to think long and hard about how can we have a criminal justice system in Texas that matches up to our values and also be common sense.”

On March 23rd, Kerman will take a new stage as the keynote speaker for the Literacy Council of Fort Bend County’s annual “Read Between the Wines Gala.” There she has a simple goal.

“I hope people walk away with a clearer recognition of the fact that jails are not really fundamentally problem-solving institutions. Some of the things that we are currently expecting to find solutions for — problems with mental illness, problems with substance abuse, problems with gaps in education or work readiness — those are not problems that are going to be solved by prisons or jails.  So, I hope that people walk away with an understanding that it should always be our goal to have as few people in jail as possible. And that doesn’t mean that those other problems are going to evaporate. But, we have to find different solutions for things like mental illness, substance abuse, inequality or institutional gaps. We have to take that seriously, and we can’t just expect to hire problems away in the criminal justice system.”

Kerman could, if she chose to, leave her experiences behind her, live off residuals or completely immerse herself back into the life that was envisioned for her years ago. Instead, she has embraced a new role, lending her voice to improving not just how we incarcerate people, but asking us why we incarcerate them. This wasn’t the life expected for Piper Kerman. Now she chooses to spend her time defying those expectations and changing the potential of others.

Piper Kerman: Featured Author at “Reading Between the Wines”

“Reading Between the Wines” volunteers Rebecca Deurlein, Kelli Metzenthin, Larry and Lucia Street with Helen Bow.

Piper Kerman will appear on, Friday March 23rd at the sixth annual “Reading Between the Wines” event presented by the Fred and Mabel R. Parks Foundation. The event will take place at the Safari Texas Ranch in Richmond.  Piper will serve as the featured author and speak about her memoir Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s
, the Netflix series adaptation of her book, as well as her current work for incarceration reform and education.

This event is the major fundraiser for the Literacy Council of Fort Bend County, and all monies raised will support continuing education.  For more information or to purchase tickets, contact the Literacy development team at 281-240-8181 or purchase online at