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Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison

Friday, March 4th, 2011

kerman_piper“Memoirs are often about difficult things in a person’s life. In my situation, my story starts with about the stupidest, most immoral thing I’ve ever done, one with terrible consequences.”

In 1993, Piper Kerman, a recent graduate of Smith College, made a reckless decision that would alter the course of her life: she accompanied her then-girlfriend, “an impossibly cool” older woman named Nora, who earned her unending stack of cash through drug smuggling, on a handful of lengthy trips. While Nora met up with her “connections” in Europe and Asia, Kerman roamed the streets and hit the beaches. But, after carrying a suitcase of cash across the Atlantic, Kerman realized she was in over her head and she escaped to San Francisco to piece her life back together.

Five years later, she was happily living in NewYork City with her then-boyfriend (and now husband, SMITH founder Larry Smith). Her period of criminal activity was short, nonviolent—and behind her. Or so Kerman thought. Then in May 1998, two Customs agents arrived at her door.Years of legal delays later, she was sentenced to fifteen months in a federal prison, thirteen months with good behavior. After serving time in three facilities—including a trip on Con Air—she was released in March 2005.

Orange is the new blackOrange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison is Kerman’s poignant and powerful memoir of those months. It’s fascinating to follow Kerman as she navigates the endless lists of rules, petty prison guards, repetitive jobs for pennies an hour (used to buy soap or a radio at the commissary), and that all-important mail call that make up life in the correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut. But it’s her rendering of her fellow prisoners—their surprise birthday parties with homemade cards and microwave cheesecake, the ways they bring hope and humor to the inside, and the makeshift families they create—that allows Orange to transcend the prison genre and become a story about the remarkable capacity for strength and resilience of Kerman and the women she met in prison. I spoke with Kerman over the phone from her home in Brooklyn about her decision to focus on her time behind bars, what emotional blank spot is at the bottom of almost every crime, and why more than 7 million Americans can directly relate to her book.

Click here to read the full text of the interview from Smith Magazine. Orange is the New Black is now available in paperback.

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