On Thursday March, 20, Piper Kerman stepped onto the stage of the Campbell Memorial Chapel to greet an enormous crowd. Author of “Orange is the New Black”, a bestselling novel that spread like wildfire and spawned a show, Kerman was a huge celebrity guest for Chatham University and even people with no affiliation to Chatham came by to see her speak.
Kerman’s story began when she graduated from Smith College in 1992. During her visit on campus, Kerman noted that she was happy to be back at a women’s college. She said, “I consider my educational opportunities at a women’s college to have been very unique and the network of women both at school and coming out into the world is very powerful in many ways. I really value that. I think that women’s communities are really important regardless which form they take, and it is important to foster and create women’s communities.”
However, after Kerman graduated, she admitted she, “walked into a sort of uncertain future.” Although she had been very fortunate growing up, she floundered, not knowing what her next move would be.
She ended up waiting tables until she got involved with an older woman, who, it turned out, was involved in drug trafficking. Eventually, the woman asked Kerman to carry a bag of drug money from Chicago to Brussels.
After doing so, Kerman realized what she had done was wrong and she ended the relationship and came back to the United States, living in California and rekindling friendships from college. She moved on. She forgot.
“It was like that thing that’s in the back of your drawer sort of hidden away,” said Kerman. “Not something I would talk about, that’s for sure.”
A while later, Kerman met her then boyfriend, Larry Smith. They moved to New York City and were settling into life there when she was indicted in a federal court in Chicago. There was a six-year delay after that, but in 2004 Kerman walked through prison gates—almost 10 years since her crime had been committed.
She was sent to the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut to serve her sentence. Looking around the Chapel, Kerman said, “An amazing institution of learning like [Chatham] gets built very intentionally with certain people in mind and an institution like a prison or a jail gets built very intentionally with certain people in mind.”
Kerman spent 11 months in Danbury out of the 13 she served (of her 15 month sentence). “If you have to do prison time,” she said, “a minimum security federal women’s prison or prison camp is pretty much your best case scenario.”
She covered prison life briefly, talking mostly about what got her through it all. She explained prison cheesecake and the notion of prison recipe books. She said, “A meal made with love and shared between equals is a very powerful way of claiming your humanity in a setting that is designed to take it away.”
Another point she made was about work in prisons. Kerman worked in Danbury first as an electrician and then as a construction worker. She noted the “dignity of work” and that she never knew prisoners took pride in their work until she insulted the woman who ran the kitchen and “had a lot of making up to do.”
As far as entertainment goes, Kerman said crocheting is actually very popular in prison. She even showed a picture in her presentation of women who crocheted for charity. Another important thing Kerman brought up were books—“the only legitimate form of escape when you’re locked up in prison.” She adamantly suggested that people donate books to prisons.
However, Kerman said that most important thing about prison was the people, and it was the people that inspired her to write the book. She told a story about a young woman named Pom-Pom who was incarcerated with her. Pom-Pom got out before Kerman and sent letters to her, telling Kerman that things were tough outside of prison. Pom-Pom was in a bad situation, sleeping on the floor of a relative’s home where she wasn’t welcome; she did not even have a winter coat.
“What I wanted in my book was for people to care as much about Pom-Pom and the other women that I did time with as I did,” said Kerman. “What I tried to accomplish with the book was just to invite the reader to walk in my shoes or identify with either my predicament or the situation of the other women who were depicted in the book.”
During the last two months of her imprisonment, Kerman was incarcerated in a federal jail in Chicago, which was much worse than Danbury. She said this made the last two months the hardest. Luckily, when she was released, Smith was waiting for her. “I often say [Larry] is the hero of the piece,” she said.
Kerman had luck on her side. When she was released she was 800 miles from home with only $28 and a windbreaker—in March. Most women aren’t so lucky to have someone waiting for them.
Since her experiences in prison, Kerman has fought for women’s rights in the criminal justice system as a board member of the Women’s Prison Association. During the event, Kerman shared horrifying statistics about women in prisons and the abuse they suffer.
However, Kerman believes that women are much more powerful than they think. They do not inevitably need saving. “I think if I could go back in time and talk to my younger self, what I would impress upon her is that you’re much more powerful than you realize,” Kerman said, “Young people don’t necessarily feel endowed with a lot of power. They may not have a massive sense of consequences. They don’t always understand that their actions in the world are really powerful and make a big difference.”