By Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison (Spiegel & Grau, 2010).
In the early 1990s, I was a graduate from an elite women’s college, a little lost and very much looking for adventure and finding it in an unlikely criminal underworld. In 2004, I was a successful professional standing at the gates of a federal women’s prison, about to start serving time for a ten-year-old drug offense. My book, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, details my plunge into the hidden world of America’s enormous prison system, the women and men I met there, and the profound effect that incarceration has on individuals and communities around the country. The book was adapted into the hit Netflix original series Orange Is the New Black.
Women are the fastest-growing segment of the prison population—the number of women incarcerated in the U.S. has grown by 800% in recent decades—so the person wearing the emblematic orange prison jumpsuit is more and more likely to be female. In 1980, there were approximately 500,000 people in prison in the United States; today there are 2.3 million. According to the 2008 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are more than 7 million people on parole, on probation, or locked up. America represents 5 percent of the world’s population but incarcerates 25 percent of all prisoners globally. In just one generation an enormous prison system has become entrenched and continues to grow, even as crime rates remain at historic lows.
Intense fascination with the story of my year in prison comes from many quarters: criminal justice and law students, those in women’s and gender studies, sociologists, and of course the people who live and work within our nation’s prisons and jails. While I was wearing prison khakis, I often fielded the sly question “What’s the all-American girl doing here?” I found myself part of a remarkable community of women, a handful from a middle-class background like me, the vast majority from this country’s poorest rural and urban communities. Prison is a place with its own codes of behavior and arbitrary hierarchies among prisoners, determined by both them and the correctional system. It’s a place where humor and resilience coexist with despair and the threat of violence, and where the uneasy relationship between prisoner and jailer is constantly and unpredictably recalibrated.
Since the book’s release in the spring of 2010, I’ve traveled around the country, talking with readers, students, prisoners, probation officers, public defenders, and advocates. The book has been selected for One Book and Community Reads programs, spurring vigorous debates among the groups who read and discuss the story. College students and seasoned correctional professionals are fascinated to hear about the perspective of a prisoner and the crosscurrents of race and class, motherhood, gender and power, family, and even friendships that shape the experience of incarceration. A first-person narrative offers a view of the experience of life in prison that even the best-researched and reported academic works cannot capture with the same vividness and immediacy. Since the release of the Netflix series, the response of young people has been overwhelming, as they are moved to delve deeper behind the screen characters who have captured their imaginations.
My story is a personal story. I was compelled to write the book in the hopes of offering a more complex and complete picture of who is in prison in this country, why they are there, and what happens to them there. In the U.S. prison life, economy and culture have metastasized in a short time span; we have invested heavily in prisons, while the public institutions that actually prevent crime and strengthen communities—schools, hospitals, libraries and museums, community centers—go without. I wanted to capture this reality by telling not just my own story but also the stories of the other women I met along my journey through the criminal justice system. As a longtime communications professional, it was important to me to present my story in a way that was accessible and engaging, even mixing harsh realities with sometimes surprising humor, as a way to draw many different types of readers into the world of prisons and jails. My talks and appearances on television and radio always spur spirited discussions about transgression, punishment, inequality, rehabilitation, and redemption. My schedule of public speaking engagements can be found at www.piperkerman.com, along with resources for people interested in finding out more and in creating change in the criminal justice system.
Piper Kerman is vice president of a Washington, D.C.–based communications firm that works with foundations and nonprofits. A graduate of Smith College, she lives in Brooklyn.