Reading the Real Piper–“Orange is the New Black”

I avoided watching the hit Netflix show “Orange is the New Black” for a really long time after fans and friends began raving about it. The reasons are manifold, as is usual for my reasoning behind protesting hit shows, but here are just a few:

  • I dislike that a show that FINALLY features a cast with both white women and women of color sharing equal screen-time has to take place inside of prison–an awful trope for people of color,
  • I don’t like watching shows where one character is so dominant over another that the threat of sexual violence is always looming (important to consider when prison rape by guards is present and frequent in every prison setting), and
  • I have a horribly irrational fear of going to jail.

This last bullet point probably has to do with the fact that:

  1. As a small child I battled Kleptomania and was always told that my sticky-fingered ways would land me there, and
  2. I’ve watched more “prison lockup” shows than is probably healthy for one person. I’ve basically participated in my own twisted version of “scared straight” by watching mini-docs, TV shows, and reading articles about life in prison that make incarceration seem like a fate worse than death.

But one Sunday afternoon, my friend Elizabeth had me overcome all of my foibles and we sat down to watch one episode (that quickly spiraled into binge watching 5 of them).

But this post isn’t really about the show, much as I love it and most of its characters (don’t get me started on my loathing of Daya and Pornstache). This post is about the text that the show springs from–a memoir of the same title written by Piper Kerman. It details the before, during, and after of her 15 month sentence at Federal Correctional Institution, Danbury in Connecticut.

To be completely honest, I’m not actually reading it (bad English major, bad!). I’m listening to it on Audiobook on my hellacious Los Angeles commutes home.

In the beginning of my journey through Real Piper’s “Time”, I got the most joy out of drawing comparisons between her experience and that of Piper Chapman from the show. I was sad to see that the character inspiring Piper’s love interest, Alex Vause, isn’t as strikingly sexy as her real life counterpart (making TV Piper’s crime more of a crime of passion) and she isn’t really present beyond the explanation of the crime and again toward the end.

Real Piper has a fiance named Larry, just like TV Pipes, but this Larry is much more likeable than the character portrayed by Jason Biggs. I can root for real Larry. TV Larry helps me rationalize, justify, and cheer for TV Piper’s infidelity. Many of the characters from the show can easily be identified as inspiration for people in the book–Yoga inspired by “Yoga Janet”, Red inspired by “Pops”, Pornstache inspired by “Gay Pornstar C.O.”, etc. And then there are some real life women from the memoir that offer hints and sprinkles of parallels to their TV characters like Pennsatucky, who cracks me up onscreen and wrenches my heart in text. Her story is so much more moving in the book and you won’t find much comedy in her predicament.

Although Real Piper doesn’t have the same crazy situational drama as her TV counterpart, her stories detailed on the page are just as captivating and just as intriguing. You get a real sense of the monotony associated with 15 months in a correctional facility. Inmates take pleasure in concocting recipes featuring stolen goods from the kitchen in two designated microwaves. Real Piper feels a tangible pride in her “Prison Cheesecake” recipe that I suspect I’ll eventually try to recreate using only the methods she mentions. Crocheting is a big deal at Danbury as are card games, reading, and blasting music way too loudly from their tiny radios, much to the chagrin of their neighbors. Keep your mind busy, stay occupied, or your thoughts will drive you insane.

Upon her arrival, Real Piper is exhorted not to make any friends (which seems ludicrous considering she’ll be locked up for more than a year). I’m glad she doesn’t take this advice because she has a powerful way of describing the relationships between these women. The victory over a long-awaited GED is given the pomp and circumstance of a PhD graduation because the woman earning it put in that much time and effort. Every inmate erupts in cheers and celebration and I was rendered a blubbering mess in the driver’s seat parked on the 101.

The pain and anxiety associated with a fellow inmate’s release rattles Real Piper to her core on more than one occasion. Can you imagine longing for a friend to remain incarcerated because you love them so much, so you’re less alone, and because you know things on the outside will be different? There are even times when these relationships cause Piper’s deeply ingrained beliefs and life practices to be put into question–whether it’s shedding the stoicism that she’d been prescribed at birth in favor of showing human emotion or cheating on behalf of a fellow inmate’s college coursework.

Real Piper also does an exemplary job of making me care about the injustices of the prison system and her website continues to further her work on Justice Reform. These girls, some as young as 18, are thrown into the system and then let back out into a world far more perilous than prison. They’re given no support in finding jobs, in finding housing, in finding money to simply feed and clothe themselves. It’s no wonder they wind up back in jail with three square meals a day, a bed to sleep in, and clean clothes to wear. The word of a prisoner means squat when thrown up against the word of a correctional officer, who is ofttimes her abuser. Filing complaints against them is an exercise in futility. Real Piper makes it clear that not all correctional officers are evil, but the ones that are feed off of the dominant/submissive relationship that they’re paid to be in. The red tape is astounding–one girl due for release is denied on the day of her departure because the license plate on the car of her family members is different than the one on her paperwork. She has freedom snatched from right under her nose and is made to wait weeks for a second release date.

My biggest takeaway from this memoir is this: The focus of the United States’ penitentiary system isn’t to reform the prisoner into a contributing member of society; rather, it’s to punish them for (sometimes) incredibly petty crimes with lengthy minimum sentencing laws. The crimes committed by most of the women in a minimum security prison like this one most likely aren’t crimes that would lock someone up for life. So why not make the effort to teach these women how to function successfully earning money a living in a legal way?

NO MONEY, I know, it’s the root of every argument.

But isn’t it more cost-effective to invest in the front end instead of spending 10’s of thousands of dollars on the same people being re-incarcerated because they’re not set up for success? I have a feeling this isn’t the end of my lesson on Justice Reform…

The Real Piper Kerman

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