It's been five years since Piper Kerman's riveting memoir, Orange is the New Black, first transfixed readers and catapulted the unlikely prisoner and her fellow inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut, into the spotlight. Since then, Kerman's story has been adapted into an immensely popular Netflix series. And Kerman has become a leading voice in the call for prison reforms and fair and proportionate sentencing.
Thanks to the popularity of both the book and the show, most people know Kerman's back story: Fresh out of college in 1993, she briefly followed a girlfriend into a drug-smuggling ring, which took her to Bali, Zurich, and ultimately Danbury; after being named as part of the ring in 1998, she negotiated a deal with the government and pleaded guilty to money laundering. She was sentenced to 15 months, but didn't start serving time until 2004 (her sentence was shortened to 13 months, and she was released in March 2005).
In the months leading up to the day she would turn herself in, Kerman read all the books she could on prison, like Ted Conover's Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing. She had no plans to write a memoir about her experience and didn't take notes while incarcerated, but once she was back in the outside world, she found the words spilling out as she put pen to paper and was "able to reflect on the meaning" of what she endured.
"I wasn't seeking catharsis, but it forces you to reexamine facts and emotions," she told The Week. "That was definitely the process of the first draft, getting it all down and reliving the good and the bad. If you don't put the emotion out there, the reader doesn't feel it."
Kerman didn't spill every detail of her stay — she omitted one friend, for example, because she knew her husband wouldn't want her to be written about — and made sure to give almost every character a pseudonym. She wrote so intimately about some people, like her now-husband Larry Smith, that readers feel a strong connection and often approach her to ask how they're doing. (By the way, "Larry's great," Kerman said, laughing).
Nearly everyone depicted in Orange is the New Black is now home from prison, and they gave the book and show their approval. "One of the reactions is, they're really excited that a woman was able to write this," Kerman said. "The personal narratives are overwhelmingly written by men, but women are the fastest growing segment in the prison population. People need to know what really happens."
Five years on from her book's release, Kerman is pleased to see it has helped bring attention to what happens behind bars and has started conversations among people who otherwise would have no interest in prison reform.
"You never know how people are going to react to these things," she said. "When the show came out, I was nervous, almost as much as when the book came out. I could not have imagined all of these things transpiring. The show is a way of making sense of things that are hard to get your head around, like who are these people and what is this data? It's a way of making sense of mass incarceration, which is quite overwhelming."
Kerman is now working on a new project, teaching nonfiction writing to groups of 12 at a men's state prison and a women's state prison in Ohio, and will be basing a book on the program.
"This is really exciting," she said. "They don't have to write about being incarcerated. It's about the importance of the narrative, and how you grow and change during the process of writing. The opportunity to work with men is really interesting to me."
Kerman is also a communications consultant working with nonprofits, and a member of the board of the Women's Prison Association.
"It's very gratifying and humbling to advocate for issues that are important for me," she said. "Since we're most likely to incarcerate disproportionately people of color, I'm eager to lend my voice. We need to send fewer people to prison; you cannot accomplish rehabilitation when they are crammed and overflowing past capacity. We need to take a good, hard look at who is in prison and jail, since many of them don't pose a pressing danger to public safety. There are other ways to hold people accountable."