Before winning countless awards (Emmys, Golden Globes, SAGs, etc.) and becoming Netflix’s most watched original series, Orange is the New Black started off as an extremely intimate best-selling memoir about Piper Kerman‘s real life experience in minimal security federal prison for money laundering and drug trafficking charges.
Former inmate 11187-424 stopped by Hudson County Community College in Jersey City on Thursday to discuss serving 13 months out of a 15-month sentence at Federal Correctional Institute in Danbury, Connecticut in 2004 and sign copies of Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison. Before addressing the large number of fans awaiting her to take the podium, Piper opened up to me in detail about readjusting into society, what she hopes people take away from her time behind bars, her feelings toward Teresa Giudice and more!
“I went into prison scared,” said Piper, whose TV character (renamed Piper Chapman) is played by Taylor Schilling. “I had been out of that lifestyle for a long time, so I was expecting really bad things based on all the things we see and hear about people in the system. My own experience was just really different from anything I could have anticipated. I felt like people weren’t really paying attention to what’s really going on in the criminal justice system, even though we have the largest prison population in human history!”
For those unfamiliar with her story, the 47-year-old Boston native became romantically involved with a woman named Catherine Cleary Wolters after graduating from college. Catherine just so happened to be a heroin dealer for a West African kingpin, who convinced Piper to launder money for drug operation all the way to Brussels.
She admits to getting caught up in the glitz and glamour of the lifestyle Catherine was looking to give her like traveling to various luxurious countries and receiving lavish gifts, calling it “seductive.” The majority of stigmas associated with prisons, convicted felons and former inmates are negative, leading people to assume they’re the worst of the worst.
“By writing about the experience, I hoped people would ultimately have a different idea of who’s in prison, why they’re there and what really happens to them in the wire,” she told me at the October 13 event. “People often looked at my story as a ‘fish out of water: this blonde hair blue-eyed white woman who went to prison, which is why I hoped those same people who wouldn’t typically read a book about prison would pick up my book.”
The diverse backgrounds and legal offenses of prisoners are thoroughly explored on the show, which is something that keeps me coming back every season for a full-blown binge-watching session. Piper, who acts as a consultant on the show, appreciates the way it’s helped open the eyes and dialogue of viewers around the world to the deplorable incidents taking place in these institutions, the need for justice reform and more resources.
Believe it or not, when she kicked off her stint in prison she was gracefully welcomed by a group of women looking to show her the ins and outs of surviving her sentence. From showing her how to make her bed properly to pass inspection to offering her toothpaste (because nothing is free inside), Piper learned it all. Like her series fictional character Piper Chapman, she even got cocky after a while once she got the hang of things, made good friends, landed a good job and an even better roommate.
Everyone’s experience behind bars is different. Being in New Jersey, it wouldn’t be right to let her go without discussing Real Housewives of New Jersey star Teresa Giudice, who served her prison sentence in the same facility. While many viewers were confused by the Paterson native’s use of the word “camp” when referring to prison, Piper fully understands why she’s been using it around her girls.
“It is called a minimum security camp. A minimum security women’s federal unit is going to be really different than a city jail or a maximum security prison. We have so many different kinds of prisons and jails in this county. Most incarcerated women are there for drug offenses, property crimes or other low-level offenses, very few women are locked up for violent crimes. So, it’s not necessary to put women into those setting with big steel bars. You’ll typically see women walking around ‘freely’ without cells. So they’re often called prison camps.”
Like Teresa, Piper was lucky enough to have a support system to keep her looking toward a better tomorrow. She was moved to a Chicago prison to finish out her sentence and the difference in facilities was extremely shocking, calling it the “worst experience of her life.” When it was finally time for her release, she walked out with $28 to her name and over 800 miles from home. Luckily, her real-life husband Larry Smith (Jason Biggs‘s character on the show) was there anxiously waiting for her with a plane ticket.
“When I came home from prison in 2005, I had a safe stable place to live. I had this wonderful boyfriend Larry, who is now my husband of 10 years, and he was there for me to help make it a safe journey home. I started a job the week after I got out of prison. I can’t even describe how important that job was, so I was really lucky.”
More than 700,000 people come home from prison each year in the county and not everyone is fortunate enough to be welcomed back into society with a safe and permanent place to live, access to health care or surrounded by people who love them. Piper now fights for the betterment of prisoners (both men and women) while they’re serving time and when they’re released.
Currently living in Ohio, Piper teaches writing courses at the Marion Correctional Institution and the Ohio Reformatory for Women in nearby Marysville, Ohio. She hopes to inspire more people to get involved with the problems our country is facing, advising everyone in the crowd to watch Ava Duvernay‘s new powerful documentary 13TH on Netflix, which explores racial inequality in our nation’s prisons.
Season 5 of Orange is the New Black isn’t due to hit Netflix until June, 2017, so in the meantime pick up Piper’s New York Times best-selling memoir and get your own inside scoop about her life-changing experiences.