‘Orange Is the New Black’ author’s biggest mistake inspired prison activism and a hit TV show

August 22, 2014 at 6:19 PM EDT
Piper Kerman, whose memoir, "Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison,” inspired a hit series on Netflix, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the prevalence of mental illness, sexual abuse and inequality in the American justice system, as well as how the Emmy-nominated show compares to real life.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, with the Emmy television awards ceremony coming up Monday night, we take a look at one the most celebrated shows of the season.

Hari is back with that.

ACTRESS: Look at you, blondie. What did you do?

ACTRESS: Aren’t you not supposed to ask that question? I read that you’re not supposed to ask that.

ACTRESS: You read that? What, you do studies for prisons?

HARI SREENIVASAN: “Orange Is the New Black,” Netflix’s most popular original show, follows the story of Piper Chapman, a white, middle-class woman sentenced to 15 months in prison for a past drug crime.

ACTRESS: I’m here to surrender.

ACTOR: Oh, OK then.

ACTRESS: Did he look surprised to you when I said that I was here to surrender? Didn’t he look surprised, like, what the hell is she doing here?

ACTOR: I didn’t notice.

ACTRESS: He look surprised to me.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The dark comedy is based on the real life of Piper Kerman. In 2004, she spent time in a minimum security prison in Danbury, Connecticut, and wrote “Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison” about her experience.

The book and series have been praised for bringing diverse and undertold stories about women behind bars to light. Kerman has since used the popularity of her story to advocate for prison reform. She testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on solitary confinement earlier this year.

PIPER KERMAN, Author, “Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison”: There are egregious examples of solitary confinement being used by prison officials to hide horrific, systemic sexual abuse under their watch.

The terrible threat of isolation makes women afraid to report abuse and serves as a powerful disincentive to ask for help or justice.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The series has already won Three Emmys this season and is nominated for nine more.

And Piper Kerman joins me now.

So, what’s it like to see a portion of your life turned into a TV show and nominated for a dozen Emmys?

PIPER KERMAN: Well, it’s interesting to see your biggest mistake and the consequences for that mistake turned into something that has such far-reaching impact.

And that is really thrilling. I think every writer probably fantasizes finding an audience and finding readers, because you would never finish a book otherwise, but it is really humbling and gratifying to see such an amazing adaptation by Jenji Kohan and to see the show reach so many people and to gain such acclaim.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Even after the success of the show, success of the book, what are the central ideas about a woman’s experience in prison that you think people still don’t get?

PIPER KERMAN: I think that people don’t necessarily recognize that women are a crystallizing example of people we have put in prison over the last 30 years that we never used to put in prison.

So people who are convicted of low-level nonviolent offenses, that is an accurate description of most women who are in prison or jail today. And, sometimes, you know, those women are sent to prison for really long times. You know, I was so fortunate to only go to prison for a year, for 13 months. But many of the women that I was doing time with were doing a lot more time, and, again, for nonviolent offenses.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now, you have testified regarding solitary confinement, but mental illness is something that has come through on a couple of the characters and storylines as well.

PIPER KERMAN: Yes. That’s a very accurate depiction on the show.

A huge percentage of prisoners and an even more significant percentage of female prisoners suffer from mental health problems and sometimes very acute mental illness. It’s a big part of what drives their involvement sometimes in crime. And the real issue is that confinement, incarceration, doesn’t make mentally ill people better. In fact, it really has terrible impacts, the most extreme example being in solitary confinement.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And so quite a few people are interested in the program also because it’s almost like this character gives you a lens to look at perhaps how women of color are getting into the penal system, whether it’s African-American or Latinos.

And the Chapman character is the sort of opportunity for someone from that community to see all the circumstances that brought them here.

PIPER KERMAN: When I chose to write my own story, I thought that it was possible that, if I did a good job, I might get someone to pick up a book about prison who would not otherwise read a book about prison.

That was my hope in telling my own story. We have the biggest prison population in the world and the biggest prison population in human history in this country. And the vast majority of people in our prisons and jails come from the poorest and most vulnerable communities.

I think that anything that helps us recognize those folks as human beings and their lives as having a lot of meaning and value is really important. There can be no question that not all Americans are policed equally, not all Americans are prosecuted equally, and not all Americans are sentenced equally. And that’s a real problem. That’s something that should concern everyone.

HARI SREENIVASAN: One of the things many viewers asked me about was, there’s a tremendous amount of sex in the TV version of the program. How much of that is real and how much of it is Hollywood?

PIPER KERMAN: For me, my 13 months in prison were celibate. That doesn’t mean that no one else in prison was having sex. But someone who reads my book will find lots of differences between the show and my own experience.

And one of them is that my own experience was much more chaste. That said, you know, people are human — human beings are sexual creatures, and that’s true even if you put them in a cage.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now, you had, in your own words, a very successful exit. You had an infrastructure of support. You had a job to back go to, things that really matter when someone comes out of prison, especially a woman. What’s happened to some of the women that you were incarcerated with? Any idea?

PIPER KERMAN: Yes, I was fortunate. I had a safe and stable place to live. I had a job that I started the week after I home from prison.

The vast majority of the women that I did time with didn’t have all of those advantages, and in some cases none of those advantages. Many of the women that I did time with have come home successfully in one way or another.

A small handful of the women that I know have gone back to prison, and that’s really heartbreaking. I will say that, for the people I know who have done the best since they came home in terms of turning their lives around, in terms of moving forward in a really positive way, their relationships with their families and the families’ readiness to sort of be there as a resource for those people was, I think, the number one predictor.

And that’s why it’s so important if we choose to incarcerate a person that we make sure that they stay connected to their community and their family, because that’s the thing that will ultimately determine whether they will return home to the community safely.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Piper Kerman, thanks so much for joining us.

PIPER KERMAN: Oh, thank you.