Piper Kerman spent 2003 in Danbury Federal Prison for a non-violent drug offense she had committed nearly a decade before. Orange is the New Black, her memoir chronicling the experience, comes out today, and it’s a fascinating look at what prison is like for women and their families. Don’t read this on the train unless you want to surreptitiously wipe your eyes while other passengers aren’t looking. We sat down with Kerman at Luscious Foods, near her home in Park Slope, to talk about her experience in prison.
At what point did you decide to turn this experience into a book?
After I came home from prison. I started doing some writing pretty soon after I came home. I don’t know if it was about catharsis or trying to make sense of the experience myself and it sort of evolved over time.
How did you go about structuring the experience into a narrative?
I wrote in a journal occasionally when I was in prison but I’ve never been a daily diary person at all. I kept every single letter I received and a lot of my friends kept the letters I wrote to them. And when I set off to do this a lot of them photocopied the letters and sent them to me. Those letters especially were incredibly valuable. I have a bunch of weird documentation just from the prison, prison paperwork, which actually was really helpful in terms of establishing timeframe. The first draft that I wrote, my editor and I agreed that I would write it in a month-by-month rubric. So literally every month was a chapter and that was really interesting from a writing perspective and I think it was probably pretty excruciating to read.
When we think about prison and see it on television and in movies prison is depicted as constant violence and terror, but your book speaks more about tedium than terror.
Time passes at perhaps half time, it passes twice as slowly. The tedium is sort of undercut with tension because the thing that happens that perhaps you don’t think about until you’re in prison or if you think about prison a lot, is there is a constant influx of people coming in and out. People are constantly coming in and people are also constantly going home. I mean 700,000 people come home from prison every year. And those new personalities are interesting and also sometimes create tension because there’s all sorts of different things that happen when a new person is introduced into that setting. So, those tensions are overlayed by tedium and the extreme routine of an incredibly structured environment.
What was the biggest difference between your idea about what prison would be like and the reality?
Well, as you say, this expectation for violence and extreme violence and constant violence. And that’s just simply not my experience, not something that I encountered.
Are you still in touch with any of the women from Danbury?
When you serve a federal sentence, generally, I think, everyone has a term of probationary supervised release. I was on probation for two years. When you are on supervised release you are not supposed to have any contact with anyone with a criminal record and if you do have any contact with anyone then you’re supposed to report it to your P.O. [parole officer] so it’s a huge proviso that you don’t want to mess with, right? Because you don’t want to violate it and be sent back to prison and that would constitute a violation of your probation. So I’ve been off probation for several years, including a lot of the period of time I was writing the book.
So much of your book was about the relationships you formed in prison, and then the system prevents you from maintaining them on the outside.
Yeah, I mean, you form these intense bonds, and I do understand the reason for that prohibition, but it’s a hard thing. It’s a feeling of loss. And you know, you feel that loss when people go home before you, but you’re also ecstatic for them because they’re going home. Prison is all about loss, by design.
I think we’re all used to the idea that when it comes to justice and sentencing you essentially get what you pay for in America. Did you find that to be true?
There were literally hundreds of occasions where I thought, “Is it possible that she did something so much worse than I did to get her seven or 10 years, or is it really about the color of her skin and poverty and the way that the system works?”
A public defense is a constitutional mandate. It’s not just arbitrary. It’s in the Constitution.
How much did you spend on private representation?
I’d rather not say, I mean, a lot. A lot.
There are a lot of race and class dynamics going on here and you have more access to the publishing industry and media than most prisoners. Does this feel like a big responsibility, telling the story of women in prison?
Well, my story is my own story. I do not purport to represent all prisoners, that would be frankly ludicrous. I just try to stick with what I know. But I do feel like now what I know is kind of a lot. What I don’t know is how it feels to serve a 20 year sentence or to be wrongfully convicted. I did commit my crime, I plead guilty. I take responsibility for my actions. But there are people in this country who are serving sometimes very lengthy sentences for crimes they didn’t commit. It’s my experience and it’s my perspective. You know, I’m a white woman and I’m a middle class woman, if you look at the statistics of who is in prison, it’s definitely not generally people like me. There were other middle-class white women in prison with me, for sure, but still the vast majority of folks come from really vulnerable communities that don’t have a lot of voice, and those people were an integral part of my life, so I feel confident about talking about the intersection of my own life with those folks, but I don’t speak for them. They need the opportunity to speak for themselves.
What are your thoughts on prison reform? How would you remake the system?
We send a tremendous number of non-violent offenders to prison. Some of them very low-level non-violent offenders, meaning these are not criminal masterminds, but low-level participants in underground economies, like the drug economy, but also the labor economy. Right now we’re incarcerating a huge number of undocumented workers. A much smarter and more cost effective, and also I think human way of dealing with low-level, non-violent offenders would be to have punishments that are based in the community.
A prison cell costs a minimum of $20,000 a year and California spends $47,000 per year per prisoner, which is just a staggering amount of money. There are much smarter ways. Most people in prison are very poor, have not even a high school education, they’ve been sent to the worst schools, they have the worst health care. It’s not a system that’s being administered evenly between rich and poor and it’s not a system that’s a good solution for the problems of poverty. Basically what’s happened over the past 30 years is that rather than addressing some of the problems of poverty, including crime, we’ve used prisons as our sole remedy. It’s not something we can afford economically, but it’s also not something we can afford socially or morally, I think.
Are you involved in prison advocacy work now?
I sit on the board of the Women’s Prison Association, which has offices here in New York. It’s the oldest organization that focuses on advocacy and services for women involved in the criminal justice system. We serve thousands of women in New York who are either in prison or coming home from prison. And all former prisoners face some serious barriers when they come home, and those are consistently housing, employment, and for women, family reunification. Most women in prison are mothers. A lot of them had primary responsibility and custody of their kids before they got locked up. Reuniting with their families and putting their families back together is incredibly important and makes a big difference in the rate of recidivism as well. The Women’s Prison Association works with women on all of those fronts.
So recently here in New York, we finally got the state to stop shackling pregnant prisoners when they were in labor and the Women’s Prison Association was one of the organizations that worked on that advocacy effort.
Have any of the responses to your book really surprised you?
Some people have said, “Oh, it’s doesn’t sound so bad.” Which is interesting. In life in general I tend to focus on the positive and certainly in prison the way to survive and not be mired in misery and depression is to focus on the positive. Whatever you can find. I chose to write about the people who helped me survive the experience and about the people I was grateful to have met.
What were some of the big hits in prison, in terms of reading material?
Serials. And some folks really liked Middlesex. I got two copies sent to me by accident and it was really interesting, people love that book. All sorts of people love that book.
Piper Kerman will read at McNally Jackson Books on April 26 and on April 30 she will be on a panel with Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, author of Random Family–another prison favorite, at the PEN World Voices Festival.
Sent by Annaliese. Photos courtesy of Brooklyn Based.