Sentences Served: 'Orange Is the New Black' Writer and Others Talk Prison Life

Author Piper Kerman has become an outspoken advocate, speaker, and activist for humane prison reform, particularly for women.

"Orange Is the New Black" author, Piper Kerman. (Photo: Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Netflix)

Apr 11, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Sarah Beston was the managing editor at Yahoo Shine, a women's lifestyle website.

In the years since her bestselling memoir was released, Orange Is the New Black author Piper Kerman has become an outspoken advocate for prison reform, particularly regarding humane treatment of women behind bars.

On Monday evening, Kerman, along with 10 other young men and women—all formerly imprisoned writers—gathered for a reading of stories and poetry about their time spent in prison. The stories were meant to bring awareness to the recidivism crisis, show the importance of criminal justice reform, and demonstrate how writing can serve as a powerful tool for liberation.

Jimmy Valdez—one of the panelists and writers—shared a poem about his release from prison and the need to find a sense of freedom and transformation within. He read:

Truth was, I was still walking around in an orange jumpsuit and black shoes.... that freedom was only as free as I allowed it to be and that orange was my black until I decided to give it back.

The Santa Monica, Calif., event was hosted by InsideOut Writers, a nonprofit that works with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals in Los Angeles County using creative writing as a catalyst for self-transformation. The 10 panelists in attendance were all part of the nonprofit's alumni program, which conducts writing classes and serves as a support network for youths and young adults once they’ve been released from prison.

Kerman's memoir, later adapted into a television series, shone the harsh light of comedy on the previously-opaque world of women in prison. The best-seller turned award-winning Netflix sensation relates the sometimes hilarious, often bizarre experiences of Kerman (called Chapman in the adaptation), a bisexual woman in her thirties who is sentenced to 15 months in prison for laundering money for her drug-dealing ex-girlfriend.

Although Kerman had never written a word for publication prior to Orange Is the New Black, she, like most of the InsideOut Writers students, found writing to be a welcome and healing outlet. And while she didn't have a group like InsideOut Writers to guide her while incarcerated, the journal she kept would ultimately change the course of her life.

“When I came home from prison, I just felt like there was a world that most people had no idea existed and that the stories were worth telling,” said Kerman.

For Kerman, the story is meant to shed light on the alarming increase of incarceration rates in the United States, particularly for women, who represent the fastest-growing segment of the prison population. The number of women in prison increased by 646 percent between 1980 and 2010, rising from 15,118 to 112,797, according to a study by The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit criminal justice research and advocacy group.

It’s been almost 10 years since Kerman last wore an orange jumpsuit. Now slightly older yet otherwise the spitting image of the character played by Taylor Schilling, Kerman said the hardest part of writing about her time in prison was revisiting “that moment of decision when you go in the wrong direction.” The other was when her grandmother, to whom she was very close, passed away. “There is no moment more devastating when you are incarcerated than when you think about your crime and whether it was worth it now that you cannot be there for somebody that you love who really needs you,” she said.

Earlier this month, the show was awarded a Peabody Award being lauded for its "complex, riveting character study rich in insights about femininity, race, power, and the politics, inside and outside prison walls, of mass incarceration."

While the book closely mirrors Kerman’s experience as she remembers it, the show, on which she is a consultant, is an adaptation with “lots of similarities, but also makes wild departures,” said Kerman. Wild departures or stone cold facts, Kerman believes that prison stories are important to tell and that they are all “survivor stories and transformation stories.”