Piper Kerman’s memoir reveals how prison changed her life, and why warehousing people who commit crimes is such a waste of human potential.
Piper Kerman was a 20-something Smith College graduate, somewhat adrift and in search of adventure, which she eventually found in an older woman named Nora. Intimidating, impossibly cool, and always with cash on hand, Nora introduced her to the international heroin trade, a dangerous, unlikely universe for a “well-educated young lady from Boston,” as Kerman describes herself in her new memoir, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison (Random House). Eventually, Kerman got out of the drug business, but 10 years later and living in New York, her past suddenly caught up with her. She was charged with criminal conspiracy and sentenced to 15 months in federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut.
Kerman is the first to say that hers was not a harsh sentence, not by U.S. criminal justice standards anyway. “A minimum security women’s federal facility is probably your best-case scenario if you’re going to be incarcerated,” she says, as we sit by the window in her sunny Brooklyn apartment. Five years after getting out of prison, she remains acutely aware of her good fortune — in having had resources, a private attorney, a devoted fiance and even a job waiting for her on the outside. Unlike many prisoners, who frequently end up locked up again after serving their time, often on a minor parole violation, hers was always destined to be a temporary stay. (She even got a book deal out of it.)
Despite its cheeky title, Kerman’s memoir is no breezy snapshot of her travails as an unlikely convict. It is a serious, poignant narrative about the failings of the U.S. prison system and its effects on the people who are warehoused in it — women who became her friends and allies, most of whom she would never have crossed paths with in the outside world.
Blond and blue-eyed, Kerman was reminded constantly that she did not fit the mold of the typical prisoner, a reality she did not need to go to prison to learn. Race was inscribed at every level of her experience, albeit sometimes in ways that she did not expect. One memorable passage from her memoir recalls what she encountered upon first arriving at Danbury; she describes avoiding eye contact with her fellow prisoners only to be “periodically accosted” in a community custom she came to call the “welcome wagon.”
“You’re new? How are you doing, honey? Are you okay?”
Most of them were white. This was a tribal ritual that I would see play out hundreds of times in the future. When a new person arrived, their tribe — white, black, Latino, or the few and far between “others”— would immediately make note of their situation, get them settled, and steer them through their arrival. If you fell into that “other category — Native American, Asian, Middle Eastern — then you got a patchwork welcome committee of the kindest and most compassionate women from the dominant tribes.
The other white women brought me a bar of soap, a real toothbrush and toothpaste, shampoo, some stamps and writing materials, some instant coffee, Cremora, a plastic mug, and perhaps most important, shower shoes to avoid terrible foot fungi. It turned out that these were all items that one had to purchase at the prison commissary. You didn’t have the money to buy toothpaste or soap? Tough. Better hope that another prisoner would give it to you. I wanted to bawl every time another lady brought me a personal care item and reassured me, “It’ll be okay, Kerman.”
“It’s not like I loved everyone there and everyone loved me,” Kerman tells me, adding that the racial lines weren’t drawn nearly as firmly as the “welcome wagon” would suggest. “But the degree to which people look out for each other — which is completely necessary because the system is certainly not looking out for anyone — was very surprising. And moving.”
Indeed, the humanity Kerman discovers in an institution engineered to be dehumanizing is one of the powerful themes in the book. Yet, at the same time, those who run the prison system invest almost nothing in the rehabilitative potential of its inmates. “No one who worked in ‘corrections’ appeared to give any thought to the purpose of our being there,” Kerman writes, “any more than a warehouse clerk would consider the meaning of a can of tomatoes, or try to help those tomatoes understand what the hell they were doing on the shelf.”
What is the point, what is the reason, to lock people away for years when it seems to mean so very little, even to the jailers who hold the key?
It is this waste of human potential on a mass scale that is one of the enduring lessons to be learned about the U.S. prison system.
Orange Is the New Black is being marketed broadly and generously; the New York Times magazine and Marie Claire have both run excerpts and New York Magazine has labeled it a “hot new memoir.” When I arrive at Kerman’s apartment, Entertainment Weekly has just finished doing a photo shoot. (“That’s why I’m wearing so much make-up,” she says, almost apologetically). Kerman hopes that this will attract readers who have perhaps have never given serious thought to the prison system in this country, rather than just “preaching to the choir.”
“I think it’s really hard for people to understand and care about an issue until they have an emotional connection with it,” she tells me. And she’s right.
Liliana Segura: Re-entry is such an important issue right now in prison reform. What was it like for you to come home?
Piper Kerman: For me, I think it was much, much easier than for the vast majority of people who come home from prison. I came home to this apartment. I came home to a stable housing situation. I came home to a job that a friend had created for me at a company that he runs. I came home to a family that had resources to help me. And those were all great things, but they’re extremely atypical.
Most folks who come home have really serious challenges in at least one of those areas, if not all of those areas: issues of housing, employment, and, especially for female prisoners, issues of family reunification are colossal. I don’t have children; I didn’t have to contend with all those things.
I had two years of probation to complete. I was monitored by the parole officer in downtown Brooklyn. I remember my PO was on vacation once when I had to request a travel permission from work. Anytime I traveled outside of the city I needed to get permission. In her absence, she had left the phone number of her boss; I was a little nervous, I faxed my request and called, and finally he called me back. And he said, “Oh Kerman, yeah, I’ve got your file right here: you’re one of our success stories.” And, you know, that was a nice thing for him to say, but I had to laugh a hollow laugh. Because the barriers to re-entry that most people face are so much harder.
LS: What did you find most surprising when you first arrived in prison? What didn’t you expect?
PK: What I did expect, and what I think most people associate with prison, is the potential for a very high level of violence. But that is really not something that I witnessed at all. I think that there’s a perception that people who are in prison are uncontrollably and irredeemably violent. And that’s just completely contrary to my experience.
The level of cooperation between prisoners was also surprising. Right from the very first day, that whole conceit of the welcome wagon was so startling. And you need it. You know, you have nothing that you need, even on the most basic level: shampoo, or soap for your body or toothpaste for your mouth. Those things are not provided to you.
LS: The fact that such basic needs aren’t provided for is one of the surprising things in reading the book. So is the whole commissary system, particularly how much they charge for things that would be cheaper in the outside world — like a portable headset radio for $42.90 that “would have cost about $7 on the street.” In the meantime, prisoners are making basically slave wages for the work they do.
PK: Yeah. At Danbury, as I understood it, the commissary sales were what funded any programs that were offered. Programs that, in fact, were required — you were required to “program” as part of the terms of your incarceration. Those were all funded by commissary sales. I think some folks look at the commissary system and say, “Well, why should they be able to buy anything?” But at Danbury those purchases fund any programs that exist.
LS: Related to that are the obscene costs of prison phone calls for prisoners’ family members. Here in New York there has been a campaign against this.
PK: It’s shocking. There is also, in the first place, a limit in the federal system on the number of minutes you can talk on the phone in any given month. So many women in prison have primary custody before they are incarcerated and have a primary responsibility to their children. And being able to see their children is obviously something that’s very important to them on an emotional level. But also, prisoners who maintain contact with the outside world have been found to have a much lower recidivism rate and a much more successful re-renty.
So the barriers to maintaining contact with the outside word, like prohibitively expensive and monopolistic phone policies, are terrible. You know, we’re talking about poor people in prison. Most people in prison have not even a high school education, they come from our most vulnerable communities and they come from vulnerable families who can ill-afford to pay what are exorbitant costs — I mean, it’s shocking when you look at the difference between what any consumer can purchase in terms of telephone service and what prisoners and their families are charged. It’s a really persistent and destructive policy. But you know, there are companies that are making a great deal of money from those phone services and those contracts, from the federal government and state and city governments. So, without a policy change there there’s no incentive for them to change the way they do business.
LS: Going back to the welcome wagon, it was interesting how it was so overtly defined by race and background. The blunt ways in which race is dealt with in prison is so anathema to many people in society — you describe how you went from saying “Latino” to “Spanish,” you sort of adopted that vernacular. Did prison change your perception of race?
PK: Sure. Race is a very easy organizing principle for people who don’t know each other at all to default to. When it comes to the welcome wagon phenomenon, one of the only things that two people know about each other is that they are, you know, more or less the same race. So that was the defining principle there. I mean, I didn’t expect the welcome wagon in the first place, and the racial organization on that front was very startling to me.
But on the other hand, you’re sort of like, “Okay I will accept this organization of people and principle because, really, how much influence do I have?” But what I found in Danbury and in all of women’s units that I lived in in other facilities was that once a person had been a resident for, really, any length of time, those divisions were much less important or relevant than you might expect.
It was very interesting. I’m a white woman. I’ve never lived in a community where white people were the minority. I didn’t find it to be difficult for me. I obviously have never been in a men’s unit, although I lived in a shared unit … I understand that there are stronger race-based organizing principles and gang factors that go on mainly in men’s prisons but that just wasn’t that much of a factor.
That doesn’t mean that race and privilege don’t completely play out just as they do in the courtroom once you’re in the correctional system. They do. Job assignments, favoritism from staff in one direction in the other.
LS: Were you surprised or unnerved at the currency of white skin and blond hair with prison staff in general?
PK: Yeah, sure. It was completely weird.
LS: It seems like they didn’t let you forget it, and it cut both ways: in your favor (whether you wanted that or not) and sometimes against you.
PK: Absolutely. It’s just a really stark way of experiencing and understanding racial privilege, in a way that is not so stark and vivid in the outside world.
LS: Are you familiar with Michelle Alexander’s new book, The New Jim Crow? It deals primarily with African American men, but it makes clear that the prison crisis in the U.S. has basically created a new racial caste system.
PK: I think that those numbers also apply to black women when you look at who is most likely to be incarcerated. I think those numbers are very stark and you would have to be very intellectually dishonest to suggest that that doesn’t demonstrate and betray racism in the system from front to back. You can’t really look at the numbers for, let’s say black men, and come up with a defensible rationale for those numbers.
The prison system is not a solution for the problems of poverty that we can afford, obviously, on an economic level right now — state governments especially are in crisis; look at what’s happening in California. But we also can’t afford it on a moral level or a social level. It creates, absolutely, a community of people who are trapped. I sort of envision the prison system as a funnel. And once you’re in the system, it’s just funneling you further and further down and restricting your choices further and further, including once you’ve done your time.
For many folks who enter the prison system, they are people who have been sent to our worst schools, they’ve received the worst health care, they are not well prepared for the legitimate economy, and this incredibly expensive system does nothing to address those facts. I take responsibility for my own actions,…but the idea that personal responsibility is something that will solve the problems that we are currently using prisons to try to solve is ludicrous. I mean, it’s a systemic problem. It’s not an issue of personal responsibility.
LS: That was very clear in your description of a presentation where prisoners were being told what to wear on a job interview; the women seemed to be getting no relevant information about how to survive in the world once they actually got out. That was pretty stark.
PK: Yeah, it’s very stark. I think a lot of the prisoners who I lived with, you know, liked their prison work on some level and you are paid, as you said, slave wages; literally, the base pay was 14 cents, the top level, the most you could make was generally $1 an hour. But work makes the time go faster, there’s no question about that. And most prisoners were completely hip to that. You know, some prisoners were, like, screw this, I am not going to work hard for my jailers. But most prisoners were willing and eager to actively engage in whatever their work situation was.
But the work that you do in a prison is generally to maintain the facility. So especially for female prisoners, the reality of going home and being a plumber — I mean, I think that’s great, and we could probably use more female plumbers — but the fact of that labor is not all that useful. The prison economy is ironically, disconnected from the real world economy in many senses.
LS: Some prison activists target corporations that use prison labor, like Victoria’s Secret, and producers of goods that we use that we don’t even know are produced by prison labor. But there’s a tension there; clearly prisoners welcome the opportunity to do some sort of work to make the time go by.
PK: And to make the money they need to pay for toothpaste!
LS: Right — it’s incredibly rigged, then. That’s something many people don’t realize. That prisoners otherwise won’t have basic needs met.
PK: But when you step back and say, is the way that we have relied on prisons to theoretically address problems associated with poverty, it’s not working. There’s a reason two-thirds of all people who come home from prison end up back in is because they’re not prepared for the legitimate economy and there’s nothing that happens behind prison bars that prepares you. If anything, almost everything that happens behind prison walls serves to detach you further and further from the outside world.
LS: In your case, prison seemed almost, in spite of the way it’s set up, to serve a rehabilitative purpose in the sense that you really confronted the mistakes that you made and the way they affected other people. But it seems that everything about prison is so punitive that that’s not really the effect that it usually has.
PK: Right, but that wasn’t the design of my sentence. That’s more of something that I arrived at on my own. There’s very little restorative justice built into the U.S. system of justice.
LS: Restorative justice is an old idea that has not been tried to its full potential in the U.S. Is there a country or a model that you see as a viable alternative, should the political will ever be there?
PK: I mean, I’m not an expert in restorative justice, but the concept that a punishment for a crime should be linked very directly to whatever harm the offender has caused is very logical. But everything about the way that our system works really detaches the offender from whatever it is that they’ve done, to a degree that I think is really hard to grasp if you’ve never been in the system. The effect of a lengthy prison sentence on a individual is simply that you are trying to survive the sentence. Believe me, you’re not sitting there — I mean, some people are self-reflective about what’s happened in their life that brought them to this point, but the demands of surviving the prison system are absolutely what is top of mind. And I think that really runs counter to the idea of having sanctions that work and that are meaningful.
Again, if all the people in our prisons were in fact, irredeemably violent and bent on malevolent aims, that would be one thing. That’s not the case. Many people who have made bad decisions, and done bad things, and there’s a lot of other people who are really caught up in underground economies in which they’re bit players but the idea that those people are irredeemable is completely wrong.
LS: You describe very vividly the way in which warehousing people in prison is such a massive waste of human potential and human life. For people who do anti-death penalty work, the “just” alternative that is often pointed to, including by many in the anti-death penalty camp, is life without parole. And yet, if you condemn a prisoner to die in prison, whether it is in the execution chamber or not — you basically are saying, “You’re done, you have failed as a human.” What do you think about the fact that parole is being granted less and less and that sentences of life without parole are on the rise?
PK: I think it’s a tough sentence. I am anti-death penalty; I think there is no defense of the death penalty in its realistic practice.
Life without parole — the thing that is most disturbing for me is life without parole for juveniles, which is shocking and terrible. I was in prison with a lot of young women, 18 and 19 years old. And I think anyone who has a teenager knows the difference between the way an adult understands the world and understands their actions and what influences them to a point where they take an antisocial action, So that’s particularly disturbing for me, the sentence of life without parole for juveniles.
LS: The Supreme Court is going to rule on that any day now.
PK: It’ll be very interesting and of course the U.S. is one of the only places in the world where that happens.
LS: Going back to how you tell your story, I enjoyed the way you used the Martha Stewart case as a sort of meta-narrative — the parallel, in the sense that she was this unlikely prisoner who found herself confronted with the prospect of going to a women’s prison. Aside from providing much-needed context for the reader in terms of time and place — since so much of what you wrote about was happening in this void — what purpose did the Martha Stewart narrative serve for readers?
PK: The truth is, for readers, it is really a way of helping organize time as you move your way through the book, because I think that an accurate reflection of life in prison is sort of this diffuse meaning that time begins to have — even though the rituals of time-keeping are really, really important and they are built into the structure of how a prison runs and of course into the experience of a prisoner. So that was the most important reason she was in there, was to help remind the reader where we are — and also where we are in time in terms of where they were in the outside world because it probably is something that they remember reading about in the papers.
LS: Yeah, as far as mentions of the outside world, there was that, and then there was when the Red Sox won the World Series, and then a few mentions of Afghanistan. Otherwise, you realize how deep inside a void you are. And yet, you were also reading the New Yorker and had access to information.
PK: You know, everyone has their own way of doing their time. Some people tenaciously want to stay on top of everything that’s happening in the outside world because it helps them feel connected. Some people have the opposite reaction, they find that reading and hearing about a world in which they are not participating makes them crazy … The papers would come a day late (as a means of control), and I would read the papers. But the impact of what was happening — for example the presidential race was going on happening at that time — couldn’t have been further away, really. People were much more interested in the Martha Stewart trial than they were in the presidential race.
The reality is that the life of the institution really overtakes your life. And that’s one of the reasons that re-entry is so much more difficult than anyone who has no experience with the system can even realize. The degree to which the institution dominates the life of the individual is near complete, without a really conscious resistance, in terms of keeping your mind sharp, your body sharp, you know, holding on to the things that are within your control when almost nothing is within your control.
LS: Related to that, relationships that formed among prisoners was probably one of the most moving parts of the book, and I was interested in the way you described the kind of family units that were formed, the “mother/daughter” relationships, especially.
PK: My lawyer said to me [after] I had been sentenced and designated to Danbury — I was able to afford a really great private attorney, which very few people who are in the system are — and he said to me, “My advice to you is to try not to make any friends.” [Laughs] And I just don’t know how a person could realistically survive the experience on an emotional or mental level. It’s a really intense experience that people are going through together and it’s a very negative experience. But it does sort of bind folks in unlikely ways.
Those family trees were really fascinating. A lot of folks are very interested in sexual or romantic relationships, but I think the primary relationship paradigm is the mother/daughter relationship. Either an older prisoner would take a younger prisoner under her wing, or sometimes a younger prisoner would sort of attach herself to an older prisoner from whom she needed guidance or help — there are a lot of very young women in prison. I don’t know if there’s anything comparable in men’s prisons or not. But the interrelations that sort of branch out were fascinating, wherein the order woman who I was really close with had other younger women who were her friends. So there was a conferred relationship between myself and them, regardless of race, regardless of what we were about as individuals.
LS: Have you managed to keep in touch at all with people who you knew?
PK: If you are on supervised release you are not supposed to have any contact with anyone who has a criminal record and if you are you are supposed to report it to your probation officer. I have been off probation for a number of years. I have been in touch with some people … people like Sister Ardeth Platte, who is a nonviolent peaceful protester and a Roman Catholic nun who was locked up for almost four years with two other nuns for cutting a fence in Colorado and doing a nonviolent protest at a missile silo. I wanted to use her real name in the book and she gave me permission, which was lovely.
But they are really intense relationships, so folks have really mixed emotions, aside from the legal prohibitions on contact. But the people who I have been in touch with, especially recently, it’s reassuring to know that they have moved on with their lives. You know, there are also women who I know who have gone back into the system, which is pretty heartbreaking for me. Especially since some of them are younger women who I knew. That makes me really sad.
LS: That reality sort of looms overhead of the book too, when you describe people going home and what a momentous occasion it is.
PK: Well, it is a momentous occasion and there’s an anticipation that’s just really physically and mentally intense for folks, especially as you get within two months, three months — that’s when you’re really counting every single day. What was so sobering for me was seeing the women who are afraid to go home. It’s devastating. There are a lot of women who were just going home to incredibly uncertain futures. Going home to homeless shelters in many instances, going home to a setting where they were not going to be able to work as construction workers or carpenters or in the greenhouse.
Some of those women were very scared of the temptation of drugs and alcohol, because those were huge factors in what landed them in prison … Women who are in prison are much more likely to have been victims of violence, either in their recent history or throughout their life. And those were really sobering truths to see play out right in front of you.
LS: You have come to devote yourself to speaking out against the prison system as it exists. What purpose do you hope your book will serve, apart from being a good read?
PK: The reason I wrote the book is because of that disconnect that I had between my expectations about prison and the people who live there and my own experience. And also, when I came home, the disconnect between people’s perceptions and assumptions about what I had experienced. It’s a sprawling system with all kinds of different facilities and people, but my own experience ran very counter to the image of prisons and prisoners in the popular culture.
I think it’s really hard for people to understand and care about an issue until they have an emotional connection with it. Stories are the way that we understand the world. Although the stats around our current prison system are staggering and when you see things like one in 100 Americans behind bars and one in 31 in the system as a whole including prison and parole — those are eye-opening numbers. But they don’t completely tell the story and I think it’s easier for folks to really care about an issue in the first place if they understand it on that level. Then those statistics mean even more.
I was talking to someone the other day, and she was like, “I don’t really know much about prison at all. But you do hear these stories about an addict being sentenced to 18 years in prison and that seems crazy.” And I said, “Yeah and, you know, the cost of a prisoner per year is generally a minimum of $20,000 — up to almost $50,000 in California — and that’s pretty staggering when you think about it.” And she said, “My husband teaches high school and he’s got a special needs kid in his class and he can’t even get the assistance that the kid is guaranteed under the law.” And we’re spending all this money on prisons. It’s insane.
I think that most people grasp that the prison system has been taken too far. It’s been growing out of control without any sort of serious thought or vision. I think that the folks who have constructed this really inefficient mechanical monster need to take responsibility for what they’ve done as well. It’s an expensive and destructive system that costs way too much and deprives too many individuals of opportunities because those resources could be directed toward schools, toward health care, toward any number of things that many communities need — especially the communities that are most affected by over-incarceration.
LS: Was there anything that didn’t make the cut in the book or that you would add now to the narrative?
PK: There are many characters — I call them characters but they are real people — who I would have loved to have talked about in more detail. I think one thing that is potentially hard for folks to imagine is that prisons are so crowded, you’re just jammed in there with so many people, hundreds and hundreds of people come through your life, in a very short period of time. And a lot of them are fascinating, and some of them are, I wouldn’t say frightening, but there’s a very high incidence of mental illness in prison and it’s very evident, front and center. I probably would have liked to talk about that issue more. More people should understand just how much of a factor that is in incarceration, and the failures of the public health care system have a direct relation to who’s in prison. And that’s tragic because the conditions of incarceration do not make people who are mentally ill better, it makes them worse. And they don’t get proper care. They’re heavily medicated — and what happens to those people when they’re released as they inevitably are?
LS: At some point toward the end of your book, you say “prison changed my life.” Five years after you got out, how has it changed your life?
PK: The thing that is most important about how I view the world is realizing that indifference to other people’s suffering is really the most preventable evil. It’s the terrible thing that was at the heart of my own crime, an indifference to the fact that others would suffer based on my actions even if they weren’t right in front of me.
And the real problem with prison is that it takes people who take an action based on an indifference to other people’s suffering — you know, stealing from them or hurting them physically, selling them drugs — and it puts them into a system which is supremely indifferent to the suffering of the people who are there. And it has, in fact, the exact opposite effect that, in theory you would want a sanction or a punishment to have. It just enforces the very thing that lies at the root of crime.
That’s the thing that I learned about myself — I don’t know that I had to go to prison to learn that — but that’s the thing that came into incredibly sharp focus for me. The disaster of the prison system as it is currently conceived is that it does nothing but reinforce the very factor that creates crime in the first place. And that’s a terrible thing.
For more on Piper Kerman, go here.