Prison is horrible, I think that much is obvious—but it comes off as downright breezy in Piper Kerman’s Orange Is The New Black, published in 2011 and debuting as a Netflix series this month. In 1993, the Smith-educated Kerman aided her drug-smuggling girlfriend Nora by carrying a suitcase of cash across the world. Her drug-dealing days ended shortly after (as did her relationship with Nora), and five years later she was living in New York City, working a stable job, and married to a stable man. She thought her past was behind her—but in 1998, two customs agents arrived at the door with the news that her name had been leaked. Years later, she spent thirteen months in a federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, before her release in March 2005.
Kerman describes herself as a “nice blonde lady,” and it’s clear in reading her prison accounts that she doesn’t think she belonged there. (True, but many of her prison mates didn’t, either.) Critics say that her account sounds too positive (the closest Kerman came to a dangerous situation was when she got into an argument with someone over the salad bar’s spinach supply), but Kerman was just trying to serve her time under the radar, while enjoying as many small pleasures as prison could afford. Kerman certainly benefited from her money, support system, and education during her time on the inside—first off, she could afford a lawyer good enough to win her a shorter sentence; once in, she was bolstered by family and friends throughout her stay, and had a job and new apartment waiting for her when she got out (her husband even wrote a Modern Love column about their relationship during her incarceration). But privilege aside, her story proves that it’s possible to make the best of a bad situation. Here are some of the valuable things Kerman gained during her prison stay:
Kitchen Creativity. Do you know how to make a cheesecake using nothing but Laughing Cow, graham crackers, a vanilla pudding cup, and a microwave? Because Kerman does, and she didn’t learn it at Brown. Necessity is the mother of invention.
Friendships. Before she got to prison, Kerman was warned to watch out for sexual advances by other female inmates, by an officer who was clearly unaware that it was Kerman’s girlfriend who got her into the pen to begin with. “I want you to understand, you do not have to have lesbian sex,” he told her. Fortunately Kerman let down her guard and welcomed her bunkies and fellow prisoners into her life, sharing books, pedicures, and runs around the outdoor track with them. Some reviewers have criticized her for leaving prison, taking her cushy New York City marketing job, and forgetting all about the friends she made at Danbury, but that may have more to do with the terms of her parole than with her choice.
Sweatpants. One of the highlights of Kerman’s stay was when she received a pair of special plain men’s pajama pants that had been discontinued in the prison shop. Receiving them inspired her to do the “Pajama Dance,” something her bunkmates urged her to do often. Not the first thing you think of when you consider life behind bars.
An electronics education. Kerman’s prison job was as an electrician (later she worked in construction), and she was able to repair small appliances for other prisoners, which earned her both commissary (like a tube of toothpaste) and good karma. Both things any prisoner could use.
Runner legs. Kerman was running thirty miles a week by the end of her stay.
A rallying cry to her support system. You know how getting dumped brings all your friends out in force to do nice things for you? Going to prison did the same for Kerman—her friends came out of the woodwork to give her books, letters, and visits, all things that many prisoners aren’t lucky enough to receive.
A book deal. Would you go to prison for thirteen months if you got a book deal and a TV series out of it? I might.
Will you be watching Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black?