If you asked Piper Kerman why she wrote “Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison,” she'd tell you her number one reason was “to shift perspective — that prisoners are people, not numbers.”
Speaking to a packed house at JWU’s Providence Campus, Kerman gave the “Cliff Notes of the Cliff notes” of how Piper Kerman, Smith alum and good girl (mostly), became Prisoner 11187-424, serving 15 months in federal lockup for transporting drug money across international lines.
Her experiences in prison changed her profoundly. “I was raised to think about social justice, but there’s a big difference between thinking about it and being plunked into a place where inequality is so starkly on display,” she noted. “I felt a moral imperative to make things better.”
Prisoners Are People, Not Numbers
Now a staunch advocate for prison reform working with such groups as the Women's Prison Association and the PEN American Prison Writing Program, she shared some grim statistics:
- The number of women in prison has grown by 800%
- 2/3 of women in prison were arrested for nonviolent offenses
- Nearly 80% of criminal defendants in the US is too poor to afford a lawyer
“I've thrown a lot of stats at you — and they are sobering,” she noted, “But with [OITNB] I wanted people to come away with a different perspective on the types of people who are in prisons and how they got there.”
She credits the Netflix adaptation of her book, now entering its third hit season, with helping to expand the conversation.
“The way the TV show interweaves the book's themes — gender, power, poverty and class, prison rules and friendships — is incredible,” she said. “As long as they keep the setting authentic, they have a lot of leeway. Sometimes the craziest things in the show are ones that really happened!”
Piper Kerman vs. Piper Chapman
During the Q-and-A, students asked a wide range of questions, from “What are the differences between Piper Kerman and the TV show's Piper Chapman?” to “How did you become an activist?”
They also wanted to know more about Vanessa, the transgender prisoner from the book who inspired the TV show's Sophia Burset. Onscreen, Sophia is played by Emmy-nominated trans actress Laverne Cox.
“I wrote about Vanessa because she was an incredible person, but also because of the reactions to her [in prison]. To see Laverne portray her has been amazing — Laverne is amazing!” (In 2014, Laverne made history by being the first transgender TIME cover star.)
When asked about the upcoming season of OITNB, Piper flashed a broad smile. “I can't reveal anything about S3 or they'd lock me away again. Not in prison but a closet somewhere!”
Video: Piper Talks to the Campus Herald
Even though the event ran over its allotted time, Piper graciously stayed to sign books, take selfies with students, and to film an interview with The Campus Herald. Watch here: