Piper Kerman was the first best-selling author to grace a Friends of the Delaware County District Library event — when she discussed her experiences that led to the book “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison.”
“The last thing I expected on my first day in prison was kindness,” Kerman said at Ohio Wesleyan University’s Gray Chapel last Thursday. “I was resolved to keep my eyes open and my mouth shut.”
A graduate of Smith College, Kerman said she stayed in Northampton, Massachusetts, after school and met a friend who was involved in drug trafficking. The friend asked her carry a bag of drug money from Chicago to Brussels, Belgium.
“I was scared. I had crossed a line,” Kerman said.
A couple of years later, federal agents indicted her while she lived in New York City. More than a decade after the crime, Kerman was given a 15-month sentence which began at a women’s correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut.
“I knew very little about the American criminal justice system,” Kerman said. “I was on my way to join the world’s biggest prison population. It was a strange journey and I was really scared.”
Kerman replayed a scene from the first episode of the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black,” where she first meets her cellmates, one of whom asks her if she studied to go to prison.
“I was part of a community of women,” she said. “They changed my life.”
She learned the rules and rituals of living in B-dorm, befriended several prisoners and avoided trouble with jailers.
The last four months of Kerman’s sentence were in a 26-story Chicago jail that she said was the worst place she’d ever been in.
“Boy, I was glad to get out of there,” Kerman said, thanking her boyfriend (now husband) for visiting her while she was in prison and being there to bring her home.
After her release in 2005, people wanted to know the details of Kerman’s incarceration.
“I wanted to tell the story the right way,” she said, prompting her to write “Orange is the New Black.”
The title, Kerman said, is a sarcastic take on the annual fashion cliché that a certain color will supplant the traditional black, since orange sneakers are issued to prisoners.
She said it was “bananas” that her story led to the comedy-drama TV series, which will be in its fourth season. Although she has given series creator Jenji Kohan creative license, she said the inspiring themes of her book are on display in every episode.
Kerman spent much of her talk discussing problems with “living in a cage,” such as solitary confinement. She said that many people are in jail due to drug charges or property crimes, instead of for violent crimes. Kerman called for common-sense sentences, reform in courts and jails, as well as a different approach to handling prisoners ages 15 to 25.
Since the publication of her memoir, Kerman has received awards from the John Jay College Center on Media, Crime and Justice, and the Constitution Project. Kerman serves on the board of the Women’s Prison Association.
Now living in central Ohio, Kerman said she drives through Delaware weekly to teach non-fiction writing at the Marion Correctional Institution. She also teaches at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville.
She asked people to donate their unwanted books to the county jail, because stories are the only form of escape for prisoners.
Gary Budzak may be reached at 740-413-0904 or on Twitter @GaryBudzak.