Originally posted for The Current on March 9, 2015.
If you watch the opening credits of the popular Netflix series “Orange is the New Black,” you will see the faces of real women who experienced prison first hand. Look closely enough and you will catch a glimpse of Piper Kerman, the author of the memoir that inspired the series.
This past summer, Associate Director of Campus Activities Lova Patterson and VP for Academic Affairs and Senior Greg Johnson were each hard at work planning events for the coming academic year. In July 2014, they announced on Facebook that they had scheduled Kerman.
Thus the journey began. Word of mouth quickly spread across campus and into the community, so much so that the event could no longer fit in Fox Hall like most CPS events. Instead, students, faculty and members of the St. Petersburg community crowded into McArthur Gym. Floor seating was available to students.
“It’s always amazing to see one event bring so many people together,” Assistant Director of Campus Activities Weston Babelay said. “It was a great way of the Eckerd community to connect with the city of St. Pete.”
Kerman took the stage, amazed by the crowd and joking with the crowd.
“Every time I walk onto a beautiful, beautiful college campus I am immediately transported back in time to 1992,” she said.
It was in 1992 that her journey began, after graduating from a small, all-women liberal arts college called Smith College in Massachusetts. Back then, she was faced with the uncertainty of the future. It was in this time of her life that she met Billy, who would become her girlfriend and would take her all over the world. Billy soon told Kerman that she had to do something very important: She had to take a suitcase filled with drug money from Chicago to Brussels.
“I had crossed a line that couldn’t be uncrossed,” she said.
It was this mistake that ended up haunting Kerman years later when two federal officers showed up at her door in 1998 to tell her that she had to go to court. In 2004, Kerman finally turned herself in to the prison system. What she experienced was not what she expected. The prisoners of the low-security prison were kind and looked out for each other. Kerman quickly realized that the stigma of prisoners was completely inaccurate.
Kerman also explained the statistics that most people don’t consider about when thinking about the criminal justice system. The U.S. holds approximately 25 percent of the total prisoners in the world and one-third of all women prisoners. Over the past 30 years, the number of women in prison has risen 800 percent and two-thirds of those incarcerated are there for non-violent crimes.
Her experiences with the injustices within the system and interactions with the other women in Danbury Correctional Institution inspired her to write her memoir, “Orange is the New Black,” which was published in 2010.
Before the speech, Kerman talked privately about her work since her release from prison in 2005 and the spotlight her activism has placed on U.S. prison reform.
“I think what I found during my 13-month incarceration in the federal system was that my own experience and the way that my life intersected with other women who were locked up was very, very different than what I anticipated, what I expected and what is typically depicted about prisons and about prisoners,” she said.
Soon after the book was released, writer and producer Jenji Kohan, known for her work on the show “Weeds,” approached Kerman about using the book as her new project. The idea quickly became reality, especially once Netflix got involved. Today, the series starring Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman (her last name is different in the series) has received attention for its female cast, storytelling and several Emmy nominations.
While the show isn’t entirely accurate when compared to the book, Kerman did confirm that beloved characters such as “Crazy Eyes,” “Red” and “Yoga Jones” were real and some were still in contact with Kerman 10 years later. Her story, both in the book and in the TV show, captured student’s interest and inspired them to judge people on both their good and bad days.
“The talk was very eye-opening, and I felt very lucky to have been able to listen to Piper’s captivating talk,” Senior Yasmine Owen said in an email. “Her story of how she was able to survive and make the best out of one of the worst situations one could be in is very inspiring.”
Overall Kerman hopes that the attention from the book and the show, which returns June 12 makes the public more aware of the conditions and the people in the criminal justice system. Currently, she is working with inmates in Ohio writing their own stories.
“I believe that when we recognize, sort of, the humanity of people who are in the system — men, women, children, you know we lock up a lot of children in this country — then many people whose lives may fortunately never be touched by the criminal justice system may better understand why it’s important to do better,” Kerman said. “And better understand that what we should want as a criminal justice system where someone we loved went into prison or jail or into the system in some way then we can be confident that they would be treated fairly and humanely.”