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Prison Punch

'Orange is the New Black' author Piper Kerman talks life behind bars and the need for prison reform



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FREEDOM NOW Piper Kerman herself served 13 months behind bars.
  • FREEDOM NOW Piper Kerman herself served 13 months behind bars.

"We are not necessarily accustomed to seeing people who are in prison, or people who are caught up in the criminal justice system, humanized, as opposed to demonized," says Kerman, who serves on the board of the Women's Prison Association and speaks widely about the need for indigent defense and sentencing reform. "A recognition that each and every person who goes through that system has a complicated story, and that they are the protagonists of their own story, is really important."

Though aspects of the show's storyline mirror her real life, it is an adaptation instead of a bio-pic, Kerman says. For example, the fictionalized Piper ends up confronting her ex-lover (played by Laura Prepon) in prison and reigniting their affair, even as her hapless fiancé Larry waits for her at home. In real life, Kerman did run into her one-time lover Nora, but it led to no more than a friendly act of letting bygones be bygones. And though the show features illicit dalliances between prison guards and inmates (one which results in a forbidden love child), a corrupt official embezzling money from the prison, a fight to the death between Chapman and the methamphetamine-damaged, fake born-again Christian Pennsatucky, and lesbian love triangles galore, none of these events actually happened.

"Television demands an enormous level of conflict in every single episode that would be almost unreadable in a book," explains Kerman. "It's a really different medium. I think they work hard to create conflict in a show that is fascinating, including conflicts that didn't really exist in my own life."

But the main goal, to humanize a dehumanized population—a crucial issue in the United States where the prison population has grown from 500,000 in 1980 to 2.3 million today, and when the Supreme Court has ruled the overly crowded conditions in California prisons to be inhumane—is the same.

Kerman's kept busy with speaking engagements, the buzz around the show, and life with her toddler and husband Larry Smith in Brooklyn. But overall, she feels lucky to be able to do her life's work and use her voice to pull more people into the conversation about a dysfunctional criminal justice system. "By and large, a lot of the public recognizes that we need some significant changes and it's time to talk about what those changes should be," she says. "There's less debate about whether the criminal justice system needs to be reformed, and more and more, what is the best way to fix it."

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