If you follow this space you know I was initially skeptical of Piper Kerman and her recently released memoir, Orange is the New Black. The book chronicles the 13 months that Kerman, a blue-eyed blond with an East Coast pedigree, spent in federal prison for money-laundering. Ironically, she’d committed the crime years earlier, when bored and just out of college she fell in love with a drug dealer and agreed to transport a suitcase of dirty money to Belgium. Authorities caught up with her in 1998 after the ex- lover ratted her out, at a time when Kerman had a promising career, a doting boyfriend and was by all accounts living an exemplary life.
My fear was the whole fish-out-of- water aspect of her story was going to, a) obscure the fact that privileged background or not, she had committed a crime, and b) lead to a self-absorbed confessional that wouldn’t shed any light on the challenges faced by most women in prison.
Okay, so call me jaded…
Fortunately, I was also wrong. In her book, Kerman is quick to take responsibility for past mistakes. She’s also well aware of the benefits her background afforded, even in prison. “I am lucky in more ways than I can count,” she says. The fact that her fiance visited regularly, and a friend created a job for her post-release, seems to have made her more sympathetic to the difficulties fellow prisoners faced. While revelations about power-tripping guards, sub par accommodations and the bonds women form behind bars may not surprise many people, Kerman does a good job of highlighting the myriad reasons why prison often doesn’t work. Since her release, in fact, she has continued to advocate reform and also mentor women in the system. Recently, we had a chance to chat about her experiences, what she learned and what she hoped to accomplish in writing the book.
You make it clear that in some ways prison was different from what you expected. What surprised you the most?
It’s shocking to me how wasteful the system is. Not that I thought prison would be effective and efficient. But when I saw the people I was locked up with, the idea of incapacitating them at public expense was ludicrous. These people were not violent. The idea that this was the best use of taxpayer dollars, the best remedy to low-level crime, just doesn’t make sense.
I mean yes, there are folks who will use violence to get what they want. But overall, I think the depiction of prisoners and prisons as solely, unjustifiably violent is inaccurate. That’s why I wrote the book. I don’t think people are aware of who’s in there. I don’t think they’re aware of the waste in terms of locking these people up in the first place.
At the same time, I’ve known women, and men, for whom it seemed prison was the only answer – the only means to stop them from breaking the law or hurting themselves or others…
Yes, I’ve seen that too. I met women who said, “If I hadn’t been locked up, I’d be dead now.” Still, prisons aren’t much of a remedy for crimes of poverty. If you look at the way the system works right now, you’re more likely to be locked up for a crime that comes out of poverty – drug addiction, abuse, crimes of economic necessity. Mental illness is also a big factor if you can’t afford and access care. Prison cells are not a remedy for any of those things. They don’t solve those problems.
Did a lot of women struggle with these issues while you were incarcerated?
There was not a lot of drug use at Danbury (the federal prison in Connecticut). But there was a lot of talking openly about it. That’s why I think there needs to be a shift in resources to focus on demand and not supply – to deal with the addiction piece. And right now there isn’t. The Danbury addiction program was only offered to an incredibly limited number of prisoners. You could only gain access to it if your judge included it in your sentencing. That’s where the quality of your attorney is so important.
One woman in my dorm was dying to get back on drugs and was very straightforward about it. She would say, “You don’t understand.” She was right. Seeing people struggling like that was really something that changed my attitude. In my 20s, drugs and addiction were an abstraction. At Danbury, I saw how drugs affected people I cared about, and I feared for their health and safety. It was difficult to look around the dorm and see people whose lives had been destroyed by drugs.
In the book, you also alluded to your own struggle. How one “had to resolve not to believe what the prison system – the staff, the rules, even some of the other prisoners – wanted you to think about yourself, which was the worst.” You described how visits and letters from your friends helped stave off doubt and shame. Yet, some of your fellow inmates who lacked that support, were the ones who taught you the secret was “to focus on what you have to give, as opposed to what you want.” Can you talk a little about that?
That was one of the things inspiring to me about the other women. I don’t consider myself a particularly religious person. The people in there with me, some were religious, some less so. There was this woman who gave pedicures to me. She was a hardworking person and a cheerful person, not a proselytizer-type. It really jumped out at me when she said, “I have a lot to give.” Her belief was tied to her faith and her God. Other people I talked to expressed their faith as love, the idea that they felt worthy of love. Self worth is such a big issue to people in prison – either in confronting their offense, or because of other compounding factors on their shoulders. I think when folks bump up against authority that can be a really huge stumbling block in terms of staying focused on the positive. That recognition that you have something to offer is SO important.
Particularly considering reentry is so difficult?
Reentry is tough. Even for a short sentence. I think one of the things that’s hard for people who have never done time to understand is how completely the institution takes over your head — the degree to which the real world recedes and how quickly it recedes. It’s considerable. Rather than envision the future, you’re just struggling to get through the day.
This is the madness of really long sentences especially for nonviolent offenders. There’s a mental or emotional consideration. I became close friends with a woman who had done 13 years. She was going home and was really scared. Women face so many issues, reuniting with children, finding work, and dealing with relationships. It’s tough.
And it’s not that offenders’ families don’t love them. Families are incredibly stretched, so they can’t always visit. Also, many factors that go into security of the system impact the inmate’s ability to return to their real lives – like making it difficult for people to visit or making it hard to make phone calls. So those ties to the outside world just get weaker and weaker.
Most prison systems offer some sort of reentry services for just this reason, but apparently you weren’t too impressed with Danbury’s. You write about an employment class where the instructor just advised everyone to research jobs on the computer — that is, until a fellow inmate told him you had no access to computers.
It was so obvious that the facility had boxes to check off. There were eight required classes – housing, health services, employment and some others. The only useful one was on probation. Folks from a local halfway house came and talked about the requirements. Literally every other class was taught by someone who worked at the prison. One was taught by the former warden’s secretary.
My impression is that it’s really variable. I know people who have come from prison who were helped a lot.
In the book you talk about writing resumes for some of your cellmates…
Yes. When women were ready to go home, it would be, “I have to have a resume.” I remember one woman had worked in the prison carpentry shop. She had an idea that she could get into the union and be a carpenter. But when I asked what job experience she had she said, “I sold drugs for 11 years.” It’s really tough with the low skill sets, but when you have someone who doesn’t graduate from high school what do we think will happen? It’s massive piece employment, not just on a practical level, but on an emotional one. I got an interesting query from a gentleman who contracts prison labor for phone companies. Maybe the jobs pay so little they wouldn’t be worth it. I don’t know whether those types of jobs create a pathway. But something needs to be done.
Do you keep in touch with any of the women you met? Do you know how they’re doing?
In recent years, since I’ve been off probation, I have been in touch with some of them. Many folks in the book have been in touch in the last few weeks. A lot of the women I knew are doing alright. But most of them had resources. Some are working in advocacy.
And the others?
A few that I’m not in touch with have disappeared. Many of them were young. The whole issue around juveniles and young adults is so depressing. I had not spent much time around teenagers. A lot of the 18 and 19 year olds I saw at Danbury were very angry, but they were also looking for guidance. It’s an incredible missed opportunity to help them make better choices. They’re warehoused essentially. These young girls come in completely out of control. They have trouble getting along with inmates, getting along with the guards. Then they’re back on the street and many of them end up returning to prison.
What was the most difficult part of your own sentence?
I came close to losing my mind when I was moved to federal prison in Chicago while waiting to testify. The conditions of incarceration make a huge difference. I was definitely in shock that first week.
That was also when you came face to face with the former girlfriend who turned you in?
Yes. But in the end, I’m grateful we crossed paths. It gave me a chance to see I’d been putting all this energy into assigning blame -when it was completely me.
Given that Orange is a book about prison life, I have to say I was surprised I laughed so much while reading it. Did you do this intentionally?
Humor is a huge survival tool. I know I used it a lot while I was in prison. And to write about it, God knows, it’s a depressing subject. That’s one of the biggest barriers to folks wanting to learn more about the system. I wanted to make the book accessible — not only to give advice to help the reader, but to do this as a true reflection of what the time was like. I couldn’t do that without humor.