How “Real” Is “Orange Is The New Black”? Comparing The Show To The Memoir To The Numbers

Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black debuted at a perfect time for numerous reasons — like that we were starving, really, for a racially diverse female-driven show unafraid to tackle queer and transgender narratives. But the timing is particularly perfect politically, because now more than ever the shameful, counterproductive, racially biased and monumentally expensive criminal justice system deserves national interrogation, and this show could potentially help move that conversation forward. Presently, the U.S. is home to 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prison inmates and women are this country’s fastest-growing prison population.

It’s historically been difficult to generate activist attention around criminal justice reform, but increasing media attention could add more hearts/minds/bodies to the thousands who’ve been battling these issues tirelessly for years, like The Sentencing Project, The Women’s Prison Association, Families Against Mandatory Minimums and The ACLU. The issues many prison reformers are passionate about have gained new traction thanks to Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, released in January; Chasing Gideon: The Elusive Quest for Poor People’s Justice, released in March; the 2013 HBO Documentary Gideon’s Army and the October 2012 documentary The House I Live In.

And now we have Orange is The New Black, the first American television program since Oz to so poignantly dramatize, eroticize and criticize the system. Plus, OITNB does a thing Oz rarely did, which is make us laugh. As formerly incarcerated writer Joe Loya wrote about why he prefers OITNB to Oz: “The show — though not a biopic, therefore not literally accurate — still captures truthfully the zaniness of prison. And the sex agonies. The fortunate camaraderie. The hidden likenesses between the guards and prisoners. The collaborations. The antagonisms. The pain of family visits.” Also: The humanity. You cannot write these people off.

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In this article I will look at how the stories from the movie compare to the memoir, and what both can teach us about women in America’s federal prisons. If you plan on reading the memoir, don’t read this article, because it’s chock-full of spoilers! For the purposes of this article, I’m gonna refer to Piper Kerman, the author of the book, as Kerman, and Piper Chapman, the protagonist of Orange is the New Black, as Chapman. Just like they do in prison! When I’m referring to events that happen to both humans — the real and the character — I’ll use “Piper.”

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Actress Taylor Schilling with Piper Kerman

Disclaimer: I’m not gonna be digging into institutional mental health care (which I have a lot of personal feelings about!) or issues relating to prison staff and sexual abuse because those topics are too enormous for this post. I’m also not gonna discuss the treatment of transgender women in prison, because Mey already did. So, onward!


The Basics: Women In Prison

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Most of the women in the Camp were poor, poorly educated, and came from neighborhoods where the mainstream economy was barely present and the narcotics trade provided the most opportunities for employment. Their typical offenses were for things like low-level dealing, allowing their apartments to be used for drug activity, serving as couriers, and passing messages, all for low wages. Small involvement in the drug trade could land you in prison for many years, especially if you had a lousy court-appointed lawyer. Even if you had a great Legal Aid lawyer, he or she was guaranteed to have a staggering caseload and limited resources for your defense. It was hard for me to believe that the nature of our crimes was what accounted for my fifteen-month sentence versus some of my neighbors much lengthier ones. I had my fantastic private attorney and a country-club suit to go with my blond bob.

- Piper Kerman, Orange Is The New Black

According to The Sentencing Project, the number of women incarcerated increased by 646% between 1980 and 2010, from 15,118 to 112,797. (The number of men in prison has increased 419% in that time.) Accounting for local jails raises that number to 205,000, and adding women on probation or parole gets you over a million women currently under the supervision of the criminal justice system. As of 2010, black women have been incarcerated at nearly three times the rate of white women, and Hispanic women were incarcerated at 1.6 times the rate of white women. In recent years, the rates of black women incarcerated has been going down while rates of incarceration for Hispanic and Latina women have been increasing. As Dorothy E. Roberts writes in The UCLA Law Review, “Mass imprisonment of  blacks and Latinos allows the state to exert direct control over poorly educated, unskilled, and jobless people who have no place in the market economy because of racism. It also preserves a racial caste system that civil rights reforms were supposed to abolish.”

Furthermore, somewhere between 48 and 88 percent of women in prison are survivors of physical and sexual abuse prior to entering prison, where they’re at risk for further abuse from guards. 10% of female inmates report sexual abuse while incarcerated. According to The Michigan Women’s Justice & Clemency Project, as many as 90% in women in prison for killing a man were battered by those men, and whereas men are sentenced 2-6 years on average for killing their intimate partners, women are sentenced on average 15 years for killing their partners.

Roberts writes: “For most of these women, prison constitutes a culminating victimization that results from multiple forms of vulnerability and violation, including domestic violence, sexual abuse, drug addiction and other health problems, and homelessness… black women who lack adequate access to drug treatment are most vulnerable to the punitive approach.”

Most arrested for drug violations will plead guilty regardless of actual guilt to avoid going to trial and getting one of those 5-10 year mandatory minimum sentences currently jacking up prison populations. There’s minimal legal aid for poor inmates, too, which is one of many reasons that guilty plea bargains concluded 97% of all federal cases in 2011, and that so many innocent poor women and women of color are locked up. Two-thirds of female inmates are non-violent offenders like Piper, who pleaded guilty in exchange for a reduced 15-month sentence. As Poussey points out to Taystee, there are plenty of women in “Litchfield” who committed no crime at all, just “doing 15 years for lettin’ their boyfriends do deals in the kitchen ’cause they was afraid of getting beat if they said no.”

Prisons are overcrowded and budgets are ballooning. A few weeks ago, the Department of Justice sent a letter to U.S. Sentencing Commission to declare its support for reducing sentences for drug and other offenses. The Bipartisan House Committee on the Judiciary Over-Criminalization Task Force held its first meeting in June. Any changes in sentencing laws could have a big impact on women: non-violent drug offenses account for one-third of women incarcerated but only one-fifth of men and the draconian “War On Drugs”  has made an enormous negative impact on women and their families.


 

The Story: Show Vs. Book

The Plot

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The Show’s chock-full of conflicts large and small — Chapman manages to develop a conflict with nearly every major character in addition to carrying on a very compelling romantic narrative with her ex-girlfriend. There are conflicts and romances between supporting characters, larger story arcs, the whole nine yards. The book isn’t like that. The memoir’s driving conflict, essentially, is the conflict between a privileged college-educated white girl and prison itself, and in that sense it’s definitely feels like it’s aimed towards a demographic that’s never set foot in prison and won’t find that privileged perspective off-putting. Kerman devotes ample time to simply describing prison life and relaying anecdotes about the other inmates. Kerman makes friends relatively quickly, gets along with other inmates and doesn’t reveal her lesbian past to anybody. Her life “on the outside” is stable and supportive: she’s got loving parents, her relationship with Larry is established and he’s gainfully employed, she’s got a job waiting for her on release, and her extensive circle of friends visit regularly and mail her packages, letters and books. She doesn’t see her ex-girlfriend until a month prior to release, and when she does, there’s no romantic or sexual tension between them.

Real talk: I think the lesbian storylines on the show were inspired by Kerman’s experiences at Smith, not her experiences in prison.

 

Larry Smith // Larry Bloom

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Larry in the show is THE WORST. Larry in real life is kinda the best. Larry Smith co-founded SMITH Magazine and developed their famed “Six-Word Memoirs,” and has worked in various editor positions for  Yahoo! Internet Life, Men’s Journal, ESPN The Magazine, P.O.V., Egg, Might and AlterNet. Meanwhile, Larry Bloom’s got nothing to write about until Piper goes to prison.

Larry Smith and Piper Kerman (who are now married) met in the mid-90′s in San Francisco — Kerman was Larry’s “lesbian friend” until she realized they were in love. In 1998, they’d been dating for two years when the feds-came-a-knocking, but because the court sought to extradite the drug ring’s kingpin and use Kerman in plain clothes as a witness in his trial, they put off her sentence until 2004, at which point she and Larry had been together for seven years. Because this was pre-facebook and pre-blogging-boom, Larry even made a website to get info about mailing packages and visitation to her friends and family. Honestly the amount of book-time spent discussing how amazing Larry is kinda made me want to spork my eyes out, but I digress.

Larry Smith’s Modern Love column about Piper’s incarceration was published in 2010, a few years after Kerman’s sentence.

 

Nora Jensen // Alex Vause

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In the memoir, Kerman graduates from Smith as “a well-educated young lady from Boston with a thirst for bohemian counterculture and no clear plan.” She craves risk and adventure and eventually meets “Nora,” a member of “a clique of impossibly stylish and cool lesbians in their mid-thirties” Kerman hung out with. Nora’s an international drug trafficker Kerman describes as “a short, raspy-voiced Midwesterner who looked a bit like a white Eartha Kitt.” Before long, Kerman’s jetting to exotic locales, traveling with Nora and helping transport money. Eventually the dark side of the business, Nora’s tendency to leave Kerman alone in unfamiliar places, Nora’s desire for Kerman to transport drugs and Nora’s frequent squabbles with her partner wear Kerman down, and in 1993 she cuts all ties with Nora and moves to San Francisco.

Although it’s not discussed in the memoir and Kerman uses pseudonyms for everybody (except herself, Larry, Sister Ardeth Platte and Sister Alice Gerard), I was able to track down the actual case and the involved parties and it turns out that the drug ring’s shit hit the fan shortly after Kerman hit the road. In March 1994, according to court papers, one of the ring’s couriers was arrested at O’Hare in Chicago. He named other participants, who named other participants, and “eventually the entire conspiracy came crashing down.” The alleged drug kingpin in question is Buruji Kashamu, known to Kerman and associates as “Alhaji.” He’s the one whose anticipated extradition to the US for trial delayed Kerman’s sentence for six years — in fact, the U.S. is still trying to extradite him. Kerman was among fourteen indicted parties, along with “Nora”/Alex (real name: Catherine Wolters) and Nora’s sister “Anne” (real name: Ellen), who was actually Kashamu’s lover for a time. “I thought she was just a Wiccan heterosexual version of her sister, but apparently she was the lover of a West African drug kingpin,” Kerman writes of “Anne.”

Kerman doesn’t see Nora again until about a month before Kerman’s release date, when Nora and Kerman are shipped by Con Air to Oklahoma City, and then to the Chicago MCC, where they’ve been called, along with Anne, to testify against another member of the drug ring. In Chicago, the two girls tentatively get friendly and eventually Kerman, Nora and Anne end up in the same cell, each other’s allies in the miserable administrative facility. Kerman relays that Anne is serving a seven-year sentence in Kentucky and Nora’s doing her time in Dublin, but doesn’t reveal the length of Nora’s sentence. However, 2009 court papers state that both women are free.


 

The Institution

“Litchfield” 2013 // Danbury 2004

Danbury FCI via town & country

Danbury FCI via town & country

Kerman was sentenced to the “notoriously cushy” Danbury Federal Correctional Institution in Connecticut, which housed 1,300 women in its low-security facility, including 200 in the minimum-security Danbury Federal Prison Camp, where Kerman was placed. Founded in 1940, Danbury went all-female in 1993 and plans to convert back to a men’s facility this year, moving its 1,200 female inmates to a new facility in Alabama designed to boost the local economy while further isolating prisoners from friends and family. Before going all-female, Danbury was known for housing high-profile political prisoners, such as poet Robert Lowell and civil rights activist James PeckLauryn Hill is currently doing time at Danbury, Leona Helmsley served 18 months, and while Kerman was in custody, the entire world was super busy speculating on whether or not Martha Stewart would end up there. In fact, Danbury stopped taking new inmates while Kerman was there, declaring themselves “closed” lest Stewart get designated to Danbury. “Unclear was whether this was because the place was a broken-down dump, or for some other, more sinister reason,” Kerman writes.

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Graphic via The Augusta Chronicle - Piper started out in this kind of cell, but was then moved to the cubicles.

This isn’t OITNB writer/producer Jenji Kohan‘s first interaction with Danbury — Nancy Botwin of Weeds spent three years there for manslaughter. Danbury has also made appearances in The Sopranos, CSI: NY, and the film Blow. In addition to Lauryn Hill, Danbury currently houses Bernetta Willis, serving 43 years for Hurricane Katrina fraud, Cheng Chui Ping, serving 35 years for running NYC’s most lucrative human trafficking ring and Lisa Biron, an Evangelical Christian serving 40 years for producing child pornography and transporting a child for sexual purposes.

Most of the practicalities of prison life are pretty much identical in reality and the show — the often race-based social groups (or “tribes”), the work placements, the commissary, the living arrangements, visiting hours, rules, facility and equipment quality and the better treatment Piper received due to her class and race. Many of Chapman’s first day conversations with various authority figures, including Healey’s speech about lesbian sex, were pulled word-for-word from the memoir, and most show characters were clearly inspired by book characters.

But because all of the show’s plotlines and driving conflicts were fictionalized, most of what happened to Chapman didn’t happen to Kerman — Kerman wasn’t sent to SHU, nobody killed themselves, no WAC elections were held, no lesbian romances played out beneath a hole in the ceiling brought down by a patchwork cross, and there was no screwdriver-related lockdown (that particular story is likely the exaggerated compound of three other similar stories from the memoir). But that loaf Kerman got served in the SHU is real as fuck, and an inmate did get sent to the SHU for two weeks for aggressively demanding a release from her tutoring job after the supervisor had been “more abusive than usual.”

Once upon a time, Danbury and facilities like it were known as “Club Fed,” but times have changed. A report from the American Enterprise Institute (which is a neoconservative think tank, so, grain of salt) says these places were once “holiday for wealthy, well-con­nected criminals, who spend their days sunbathing and working on their short irons” but isn’t what it once was because “changing demographics, tighter regulations, and lengthening sentences have combined to make life in prison camps more and more similar to life in higher-security facilities.” These facilities are now packed with non-violent drug offenders of all races and lack former amenities like the liberal furlough policy, freedom to wear your own clothing, telephone calls without time limits, unlimited commissary spending and off-campus work assignments. Still, Danbury is about as good as it gets, which isn’t saying much.

crime scene tape around the Chicago MCC after two inmates escaped

Crime scene tape around the Chicago MCC after two inmates escaped

The conditions in Chicago MCC, where Kerman spent her last month, were more like the harrowing documentaries and shows about prison life we’re used to seeing. (I’ve heard many people surprised by the relative freedom prisoners had on the show compared to those MSNBC documentaries about lockup.) Nobody really makes shows about solitary confinement because that would be really boring. Because you know what’s really boring? Solitary confinement.

“The women I met in Danbury helped me to confront the things I had done wrong, as well as the wrong things I had done,” Kerman writes. “The Chicago MCC was a different story… the misery of the women surrounding me rattled me, as did the pointlessness of every day that passed here, and the complete disrespect and indifference with which we were treated.”

Orange is The New Black films in Queens’ Kaufman Astoria Studios and the now-defunct Rockland Children’s Psychiatric Center on Convent Road, which was vacated in 2010 (the operations were moved to a new building on the other side of the Rockland campus) and is currently being maintained by the State and leased to Orange is The New Black. Other buildings of the Rockland State Hospital have been simply abandoned.

Work Assignments:

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photo on left by Emily Corwin via state impact

The privatized prison system benefits prison-building corporations, the companies who facilitate the expensive phone services and the manufacturers of commissary goods — but it also greatly benefits companies who “employ” prisoners to boost their bottom line. UNICOR, for example, “employs” more than 3,000 prisoners starting at 23 cents an hour manufacturing electronic equipment, most of which is for the Department of Defense. UNICOR made over $900 million in revenue last year. In Danbury, Kerman writes, the FCI inmates worked in a UNICOR warehouse making military radio components for a dollar an hour. In Danbury, inmates needed a GED to earn over 14 cents an hour, and a GED program was offered within the prison.

The facilitation and purpose of “work assignments” varies widely from institution to institution — some claim work assignments will give you valuable skills for the real world, others aim to keep the institution going on the cheap, most serve to simply keep inmates busy during the day, and many are essentially a legal form of slave labor.

The show and the memoir are consistent with their portrayal of the work program at Danbury, from the toxic mold preventing Piper from doing the education program to her eventual assignment of electrical.

Kerman writes that prisoners worked in the kitchen, as orderlies washing floors, driving the van (Morello’s job), construction and maintenance services or in Puppies Behind Bars, which enables inmates to train seeing-eye dogs and live with their puppies 24-7. (Puppies on Parole is a similar program.) So that’s how Big Boo got Little Boo!

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photo on left via Business Insider via Paws on Parole

In the book, Kerman’s actually taken off-grounds to do electrical work and eventually moves into Carpentry and Construction. But as Kerman points out, the equipment was so outdated and the instructors so narrowly qualified that she doubts anybody was building really valuable work skills in Danbury.

John Rakis, in the 2005 edition of The Federal Probation Journal, writes that, “While there are many examples of prison-based vocational programs that offer market-driven training, most are designed to meet the operational needs of correctional facilities, not the long-term employment needs of prisoners.”


The Inmates

Friends, Mothers…

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Everything I’ve read about Danbury and other minimum-security women’s prisons emphasizes the family feel that develops between inmates. Activist Doris Sage, who spent six months in the Danbury Federal Prison Camp in the late ’90s, recalls in “the edge: across borders, over the line, through prison gate” that “It was the women who helped each other; they taught us the unwritten rules and the rules each guard was likely to enforce. The women were magnificent!” Kerman and Sage both describe a lively community who planned discreet birthday parties and going away parties for each other, coordinated the Secret Santa exchange, provided pedicures and haircuts for trade, shared commissary goods, and provided emotional support. Inmates often form “families,” like Red and Aleida do on the show, headed up by a matriarch who goes by Mom, Dad, Aunt or Uncle. “More vulnerable inmates in need of protection become daughters and nieces, more masculine women; nephews and brothers,” intones the ominous narrator of a National Geographic Documentary on Female Offenders. “And the most dominant inmates assume the role of Father or Uncle.”

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One of the primary difference between real life inmates and the show, however, is how relatively rarely children are discussed by anybody besides the Latina clique — 1 in 33 women in federal prisons are pregnant when admitted and nearly two-thirds of women in prison are mothers. Most of the show’s main ensemble was childless, even when based on book-characters with children, such as the book characters who inspired Miss Claudette and Pennsatucky.

…and Lesbians!

“True lesbians, situational homosexuals, players, prison authorities, and outside lesbian activists all play a role in the queer history of women’s prisons,” writes Jessi Lee Jackson in her paper Situational Lesbians and The Daddy Tank. On the show, everybody is gay! Or gay for the stay! There’s oral sex in the showers, hot sex in the chapel, and heaps of dyke drama.

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But in the memoir, Kerman writes that she was “struck by the fact that there did not seem to be any lesbian activity.” Later in the book, she remarks that “a lot of the romantic relationships I observed were more like schoolgirl crushes, and it was rare for a couple to last more than a month or two. It was easy to tell the difference between women who were lonely and who wanted comfort, attention and romance and a real, live lesbian: there were a few of them.” She does note other inmates being gay for her, like Allie who “would sometimes refer to me as her ‘wife,’ to which I would respond, ‘Fat fucking chance, Allie.’” Kerman also describes the long-term relationship between Big Boo (“a giant bulldyke… the most attractive three-hundred-pound woman I have ever seen”) and her girlfriend Trina, “a bitch on wheels.”

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Joan Porro, a white-collar criminal who shared her experience at Danbury in the early ’00s with the neoconservative American online magazine, claimed that she “felt constantly threatened by the widespread lesbian activity that she witnessed on the prison camp ground.” Meanwhile, an angry inmate wrote to populist in 2004 in response to alarmist stories about Martha Stewart’s lesbian prospects in Danbury: “I won’t deny that there are incarcerated women who prefer the same sex. However, most of them led a lesbian lifestyle on the streets as well. This is not lesbian hell as Heidi Fleiss declares. I am not a lesbian, nor are many other women incarcerated here at FCI Danbury. I haven’t heard one person say that they want to make Martha their “girlfriend” as these magazines state.”

Research in the late ’90s showed that 30%-60% of women are in lesbian relationships in prison. A former prisoner writing for Fire Dog Lake said that KCIW PeeWee Valley, a multi-security facility in Kentucky, forbade “activities such as sitting in another inmate’s bunk or entering another inmate’s room,” but that “jails were a little more lax.”

The Characters

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A lot of characters in the show were inspired by book characters and some were conglomerates of several book characters. I’m gonna get into a few of the most obvious examples here, but this isn’t all of them.

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Sister Ingalls chained herself to a flagpole at a nuclear test site, but the real Sister Ingalls — pacifist nun Sister Ardeth Platte — actually cut a chain link fence around a Colorado missile silo with two other nuns and proceeded to paint the sign of the cross on the Minuteman III silo in her own blood, using a baby bottle as a paintbrush! That’s hard core.

Kerman’s “bunkie,” Miss Natalie, was the inspiration for Miss Claudette. In the memoir, Kerman and Natalie get along and become close friends, but she never finds out what Miss Natalie’s “in for.”

Yoga Jones is based on Yoga Janet from the memoir, who was doing a two-year sentence on a marijuana charge. Kerman describes her as “fiftyish, tall, fair and striking” and “like me — a middle-class drug criminal.” In the show, Yoga Jones confesses to Watson that she’s in jail on murder charges: she grew weed in her backyard, but she was an “old-fashioned drunk” who ended up accidentally killing an 8-year-old boy she mistook for a deer fucking with her crops.
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Pennsatucky, described in the memoir as “a young woman from western Pennsylvania who proudly called herself a redneck” and a crack addict, is Chapman’s enemy and Kerman’s friend. Kerman refers to Pennsatucky and her friends as “Eminemlettes,” which she defines as:

“Caucasian girls from the wrong side of the tracks with big mouths and big attitudes who weren’t taking shit from anyone (except the men in their lives). They had thinly plucked eyebrows, corn-rowed hair, hip-hop vocabularies, and baby daddies, and they thought Paris Hilton was the ne plus ultra of feminine beauty.”

Pennsatucky had lost custody of her kid, and Kerman considers her “perceptive and sensitive” while acknowledging that “[Pennsatucky] had great difficulty expressing herself in a way that was not off-putting to others, and she got loud and angry when she felt disrespected, which was often.” Like many incarcerated women, Kerman feels that nothing “would have prevented [Pennsatucky] from living a perfectly happy life, but her problems made her vulnerable to drugs and to the men who had them to offer.”

But it’d be unusual for Miss Claudette, Pennsatucky-on-the-Show or Yoga Jones to end up at Danbury, because as Kerman told The Rumpus, “in a women’s minimum-security federal prison there are few or no violent offenders. Most are low-level drug offenses, insurance fraud, bank fraud, stock fraud. I myself never witnessed a crime of violence.” In the book, we’ve got Rosemarie (probably the inspiration for Morello) incarcerated for Internet Auction Fraud (yup, ebay), a “raspy-voiced fiftyish blonde” in for stock fraud, a former investment banker who supported her gambling addiction by embezzling money and an Italian-American who was a former gang leader with the Latin Kings. That all being said, a recent news article about Danbury notes that, “although it’s considered a low-security institution, a number of women are serving long prison sentences for offenses ranging from human trafficking to murder.” But Kerman was staying in The Danbury Federal Prison Camp, which errs on the side of non-violent.

Sophia Bursett was inspired by “Vanessa Robinson,” a transgender inmate serving a short sentence who Kerman describes as “cheerful, drag-queen funny, smart and observant and sensitive to what others were thinking and feeling” as well as “six feet, four inches of blond, coffee-colored, balloon-breasted,” and who the guards call “Richard” and the inmates call the “he-she.” Like Sophia, Vanessa was denied her hormones in prison, which Kerman claimed caused Vanessa to retain “several male characteristics that would have been less evident otherwise, most notably her voice” — which is inaccurate, actually, because hormone replacement therapy for trans* women cannot change a voice which has already been subjected to testosterone. Going off hormones can impact other physical changes enabled by HRT, however, like those related to fat distribution, muscle development, body hair and skin.

Red on the show is Pop in the book — “the imposing fiftyish wife of a Russian gangster who ruled the kitchen with an iron fist” — and Kerman becomes one of Pop’s “children.”


 

Post-Incarceration Life

“I went back to work right away [after prison]. I was very lucky — a friend of mine created a job for me at his company. Most prisoners who come home face really significant challenges when it comes to finding work. It’s very, very hard for most people who have a criminal record to get a job. I think the system is very wasteful of taxpayers’ dollars. It’s also very wasteful of human potential. I found that most people whom I was locked up with were, you know, good people who have skills and value. Prison is a missed opportunity to nurture those things.”

- Piper Kerman, Story of Life in Prison – Marie Claire

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Taystee’s return inspired so many feelings: sadness that she got locked up again, happiness that she was back on the show, delight that her and Poussey could be besties again. But the conversation between Taystee and Poussey in the library was perhaps the series’ most intentional indictment of the system in the entire season, in which Taystee recalls the impossibility of “starting over” after prison. She had no place to live, clothes to wear or food to eat. It was impossible to find a good-paying job, and check-ins with parole officers loomed ever-present.

As described in depth in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, former prisoners with drug offenses on their record face insurmountable challenges. They may find themselves ineligible for food stamps, public housing (or any housing), federally funded health and welfare benefits and federal educational assistance — demerits which hit especially hard for mothers with children and for women of color, who already suffer discrimination in those sectors with or without a record. “Once labeled a felon, the badge of inferiority remains with you for the rest of your life, relegating you to a permanent second-class status,” Alexander writes. “Today a criminal freed from prison has scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a freed slave or a black person living ‘free’ in Mississippi at the height of Jim Crow.” Many will lose the right to vote or to hold a driver’s license.

Taystee, who owes the prison “$900 in fees,” is not alone with that type of debt — upon release, former inmates often are required to pay fees for parole or probation, jail book-in fees, jail per diems for pretrial detention, pre-sentence report fees and so many more. Missing a payment could land you back in jail.

Securing post-incarceration employment is really really really really hardEmployers are biased against applicants with criminal records, and prison time leaves gaps in employment history, training and education. Jobs requiring minimal training, like factory work, are sparse in this economy, leaving only the service sector.  Those who fail to get a job or return to the underground economy in desperation will usually end up back in prison.

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While in Danbury, Kerman attends the Danbury FCI Job Fair, an annual event “that paid lip service to the fact that its prisoners would rejoin the world.” She judges the event as only slightly helpful, and recalls panelists being asked by inmates where to get training or find job listings or jobs that hired women with records, to which the panelists suggested using the Internet. The inmates inform the panelists that there’s no internet, computer lab or computer training. Despite the practical futility of it all, Kerman points out: “What was striking… was that the [volunteers and speakers] spoke to us prisoners with great respect, as if our lives ahead had hope and meaning and possibility. After all these months at Danbury, this was a shocking novelty.”

She also attends reentry classes. The health class, taught by a Correctional Officer who worked food services at the FCI, didn’t disclose how to obtain affordable health care, let alone reproductive, behavioral, psychiatric or substance abuse treatment. A class called “Positive Attitudes” was led by the warden’s secretary, who talked about how she had fun at a party despite not being able to diet into her “party dress.” The “housing” class, taught by another vocational instructor, focused on home repair and aluminum siding, offering no solutions when inmates asked about how to find an actual apartment to rent. Kerman writes:

I looked around the room in disbelief. There were women in there who had lost their parental rights and who would have to battle to reunite with their children; women who had nowhere to go and so would be heading to homeless shelters; women who had never worked in the mainstream economy and must find real jobs or end up back in prison. I had none of these concerns, because I was so much luckier than the majority of women I’d been living with in Danbury, but I felt disrespected by how trivial these classes were turning out to be.

Many groups are working to change these conditions, however, such as The Women’s Prison Association Re-entry Services. There are regional initiatives too, like Jersey’s Female Offender Re-Entry Group Effort, and Mercy Programs Northeast’s LIFE Prison Reentry Program for Women Prisoners, which provides business education programs to Oregon female convicts focused on teaching skills required to establish self-sufficiency and economic stability through business, entrepreneurship and pro-social life skills.

The Second Chance Act of 2008 authorized federal grants to government agencies and nonprofit organizations designed to reduce recidivism. Facing overcrowding and budget cuts, California, Michigan, New York and other states have begun expanding job programs for prisoners.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act should grant both prisoners and former prisoners comprehensive and continuous health care starting in January 2014. Clinics like The Transitions Clinic in the Bay Area and Unity Clinic in DC offer health care to parolees and ex-prisoners, and A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project provides housing and re-entry support for women and children in South Central Los Angeles.


Ultimately, Orange is The New Black isn’t a documentary about imprisoned women and the experience of women in the deeply flawed and continually worsening American prison system. It’s a television show, intended more to engage and entertain than educate or agitate. And Kerman’s book isn’t the memoir of a woman whose life stands as testament to how fundamentally broken the system is — if anything, it’s a book that uses the relative ease with which Kerman navigated the system to highlight the difficulties that other women, most notably poor women and women of color, face. Ultimately, the message is that Kerman (and Chapman) are able to get out okay, to have “normal” lives — and that this affords them the opportunity to pass on knowledge about those who haven’t because they can’t. The vast majority of women in the prison system are not going to be able to continue with their lives largely unaltered by the Department of Corrections, and truthfully, neither the book nor the show probably go far enough in terms of depicting the Sisyphean situation incarcerated women are forced into. But it does seem that both are making a good faith effort to push that conversation forward, and given how desperately this conversation needs to be had on a national level, it seems smart to take the show up on its offer and use this as a jumping off point to start talking about the real women whose stories are implied on the screen.

chowchilla

Central California Women’s Facility, Chowchilla


 

Resources For Further Action:

The Drug Policy Alliance: The Drug Policy Alliance envisions a just society in which the use and regulation of drugs are grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights, in which people are no longer punished for what they put into their own bodies but only for crimes committed against others, and in which the fears, prejudices and punitive prohibitions of today are no more.

Incite! Women of Color Against Violence: INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence is a national activist organization of radical feminists of color advancing a movement to end violence against women of color and our communities through direct action, critical dialogue and grassroots organizing.

Women’s Prison Association: WPA is a service and advocacy organization committed to helping women with criminal justice histories realize new possibilities for themselves and their families. Our program services make it possible for women to obtain work, housing, and health care; to rebuild their families; and to participate fully in civic life. Through the Institute on Women & Criminal Justice, WPA pursues a rigorous policy, advocacy, and research agenda to bring new perspectives to public debates on women and criminal justice.

Women & Prison: A Site For Resistance: Women and Prison: A Site for Resistance makes visible women’s experiences in the criminal justice system. Documenting these stories is integral to this project of resistance. The stories are supported by a collection of resources, such as organizations, reports, essays, and links to a wide range of information on women and prison. The contents of this website are fluid and constantly changing. We expect to add stories, articles and resources on a regular basis. Your feedback and contributions are welcome.

Just Detention: Just Detention International is a health and human rights organization that seeks to end sexual abuse in all forms of detention. The rape of detainees, whether committed by corrections staff or by inmates, is a crime and is recognized under international law as a form of torture. In the U.S., sexual assault in detention has reached epidemic levels, with more than 200,000 people subjected to this form of violence every year.

Nation Inside: Nation Inside is a platform that connects and supports people who are building a movement to systematically challenge mass incarceration in the United States.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums: FAMM advocates for state and federal sentencing reform, and mobilizes thousands of individuals and families whose lives are adversely affected by unjust sentences to work constructively for change.

Also, Piper Kerman has a list of Justice Reform Organizations on her website.

Avatar of Riese

Riese is the 32-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York City, and now lives in The Bay Area. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are!

Riese has written 1721 articles for us.

63 Comments

  1. Thumb up 8

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    This article is fan-fucking-tastic, Riese; thank you for writing it. I’m definitely super hoping the show will ultimately inspire a resurgence in ever-trendy prison-reform activism because that shit is so important and also it’s cool when stories make people wanna change the world and seriously how fucked up is it that former inmates essentially have to pay prisons for incarcerating them?

  2. Thumb up 28

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    “as many as 90% in women in prison for killing a man were battered by those men, and whereas men are sentenced 2-6 years on average for killing their intimate partners, women are sentenced on average 15 years for killing their partners.”

    i never do this but i had to comment before i even finish the article BECAUSE THIS MAKES ME SO FUCKING ANGRY

  3. Thumb up 6

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    So excellent, thank you. At some point in the last few episodes, it really struck me – wtf is the POINT of prison, really? What was actually accomplished by putting someone like Piper in prison? It’s really strengthened my belief in reform and education, instead of chucking people in a pen and employing Magical Thinking that somehow prison is going to make a difference. Ugh. It hurts and I don’t know what to do.

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      well, when it comes specifically to someone like Piper, that is, someone who’s white and middle class and had a wonderful and expensive education and tons of employment opportunities and clearly didn’t start committing crimes out of necessity etc – what else could we do? what kind of education / rehabilitation programme would be appropriate for people like her? should white middle class folk who contribute to drug wars in the Global South seemingly just for the fun of it be left off the hook?

      I sympathize a lot with poor women, especially women of colour who end up in prison because of institutionalized racism and classism – they /absolutely/ should not go to prison – but people like Piper ? especially when you know how deeply connected international drug trade is with imperialism, and how much it encourages widespread violence and poverty in the global south, while white western traffickers get rich ? I have a hard time sympathizing.

      • Thumb up 8

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        also RE: global heroin trade

        currently, the biggest producer of heroin in the world is Afghanistan – and they became the biggest producer of heroin in the world shortly after the US invaded the country because we destroyed the rest of their economy – for example, something like 2/3 of the irrigation systems in Afghanistan were destroyed, farmers had no choice but start growing opium to support themselves and their families. This doesn’t mean that it’s easy for farmers to grow and sell opium – they frequently get arrested and imprisoned too, because while the government turns a blind eye to big farms supported by rich foreign “investors”, they do punish small farmers. It’s so bad, drug trade makes up about 50% of the country’s GDP – the economy of the whole country is dependent on it – and it encourages corruption, poverty and violence on all levels in a region that is already trying to recover from armed conflict. And of course we’ll never take responsibility for this – because western invading armies and western drug traffickers and buyers created this disastrous situation.

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        I understand that there aren’t many options besides prison for privileged white people. My comment was more geared toward the fact that prison, in general, is not a solution to the vast majority of our crime problems. Also, the point of the criminal justice system in not punishment, but rehabilitation. As far as I can tell, Piper was completely removed from the drug life and was never going to offend again. The reason she was prosecuted was so the government could get the big fish behind the whole operation. I don’t believe that people should get off scott free when they have committed a crime, but Piper could have been fined or given some form of punishment that would have benefited the community, rather than putting her in prison. I would say the same thing about the other inmates who are there for minor drug offenses.

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        to me there’s nothing about a restorative justice process that wouldn’t be applicable to kerman/chapman just because she’s privileged. whether or not you sympathize seems kind of secondary to the ever-worsening violation of human rights intrinsic to our criminal justice system

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          The ever-worsening violation of human rights intrinsic to our criminal justice system are not perpetrated against white cis women who went to expensive private colleges – they’re perpetrated against people these women oppress – it’s really disingenuous for white women / white feminists to appropriate the plight of women of colour in order to avoid accountability.

          What kind of restorative justice process would be applicable to a privileged white woman who supported global heroin trade? my overarching point – which, I realize, I might not be very good at conveying – is that global drug trade has strong ties with imperialism, that it harms communities of colour, especially in the global south – that this is something we should take into account when we try to paint Kerman / Chapman as an innocent victim of the justice system in the same way poor women of colour are its victims. Kerman / Chapman was caught trying to exploit communities of colour – unfortunately (for her), she wasn’t exploiting them in ways the justice system in the US deems legal and okay, so she had to go to prison.

          That doesn’t mean we should feel sorry for her – or feel like what has happened to her is unfair the way the excessive incarceration of women of colour is – it wasn’t. You *should* be punished for using white supremacy to exploit communities of colour – I know that the US justice system wasn’t set up to punish people who do this, and I know that the fact that Kerman / Chapman was punished is merely incidental – still, I can’t say I’m sorry she was punished? why should I have an infinite amount of patience and forgiveness for our oppressors?

  4. Thumb up 4

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    I’m half-way through the book but I still read the article because it looked super interesting (and frankly I can’t get enough of that show). And it was! Kudos for all the research that went into writing this.
    Reading the memoir, it’s super fun to try to guess which characters on the show are based on which person in the book. I hadn’t realized Piper Kerman had used pseudonyms for everybody but of course it makes sense. I can’t help but wonder how all these real people feel about their portrayal on the show, especially real life Larry (does he read forum boards? for his sake I hope not).

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      yeah i wondered the same thing about Larry, like I wondered why they didn’t change his name from the book/life to the memoir — but i feel like the character who got the most brutal retcon of all was Piper herself! so maybe they’re just really well-balanced mature humans who wouldn’t freak out every day that people might think they’re anything like the character on the show, lez-girls-style, as i certainly would.

  5. Thumb up 2

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    This article is fabulous Riese! Thank you so much for all of the research!

    I clicked over to the real Piper’s website and bought one of the tee shirts. Then realized that the site was from 3,000 days ago and it probably won’t ever come.

  6. Thumb up 15

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    SIster Ardeth Platte has to be one of the most dedicated and amazing anti-war protesters around. She’s been in a whole bunch of actions against the military-industrial complex (which is one of the reasons they gave her a stiffer sentence than her two fellow protesters in the Peterson Airforce Base case) and, what the show doesn’t mention, also has a huge background of facilitating conflict resolution in impoverished communities and helping battered women. She’s an amazing person and I was glad to hear Piper (Kerman) say in interviews that meeting her was kind of the “highpoint” of her stay in prison. She’s also had a longtime connection to another hero of mine, Philip Berrigan. I hope the OITNB shows her in more depth in the second season.

  7. Thumb up 4

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    This article is fantastic, and cements yet again why Autostraddle is my favorite website.

    This article deals slightly more with reform (which to me is a necessary starting point) but for people interested in abolition of the prison-industrial complex, check out Critical Resistance chapters in Oakland, New York, and New Orleans.

  8. Thumb up 10

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    Fantastic article! It clearly took a lot of time, and thank you for adding the list of resources at the bottom. I recently learned that my local Girl Scout council here participates in a program called Girl Scouts Beyond Bars, which helps facilitate visits and continual support for girls with mothers in prison. Considering how many women in prison are mothers, I also found the lack of discussions about children in the show a little odd. Maybe they’ll go into that a bit more in the second season?

  9. Thumb up 1

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    Apologies that this is off topic but I couldn’t think of a better place to ask…

    Would reading the memoir spoil the show? This article sounds fascinating and right up my alley but I stopped reading after the spoiler warning. Usually I like to read the book first but I’ve really enjoyed being shocked by the twists as they happen and would like to go into series 2 unspoiled!

    Does the show stick to the book or does it deviate?

    Sorry again and thanks if you can help!

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      nope, not at all. the show uses the book as a jumping off point, but like i said, all the storylines, plot and conflict on the show were made up, and the characters are only loosely based on real people. the basics are similar, and there are scenes lifted from the book, but that’s all situational stuff and not really character/story stuff. there wasn’t much conflict in the book so they had to make stuff up to turn it into a compelling tv show.

      when i said “this post is chock full of spoilers” i meant mostly that for me, the funnest part of reading the book was recognizing which parts were in the show and which weren’t, and i reveal a lot of those things here.

  10. Thumb up 2

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    thanks, riese, for once again taking the time to do the research that gives depth to entertainment.
    so many times reading this article today i got sidetracked by links or angered by the numbers. somehow it took me all afternoon to read it.
    thank you.

  11. Thumb up 4

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    A lot of other articles in the last couple weeks have been really misleading when talking about how the show is based on the book, where it seems the writers don’t actually know that most of it is fiction or couldn’t be bothered to research it, leaving people confused (especially with regard to the real life Larry-Piper and the show’s relationships. And I just want to obnoxiously scream “THIS ISN’T REAL SO IT WON’T END THE SAME WAY”). Riese, on the other hand, has done an amazing job with this by raising important facts about the reality of prison, while clearly maintaining that most of the show is a work of fiction (and also mentioning that the memoir isn’t going to be the most eye-opening or relatable book for every woman who reads it).

    I really love how OITNB brings prison and societal issues to viewers minds (like in the Taystee moment Riese mentioned), but ultimately it is meant to entertain – otherwise it would have just been a documentary. You can be socially responsible and entertaining in a work of fiction, and I think OITNB is doing as good of a job at that as I could ask for.

  12. Thumb up 3

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    Riese, this is an incredible article (and I just saw it plugged on Jezebel, nicely done!) This article deserves ALL the traffic on the internet. So many important points raised. So much learned. So much good consolidation of great research. Also, I just really want to see Piper and Alex make out again. And Pensatucky to get some new teeth.

  13. Thumb up 12

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    This article is amazing! As an aside, I’m glad that Ilene Chaiken didn’t write, direct and produce “The Farm” as people were speculating because it wouldn’t have even compared to OITNB. I imagine Alice would be in a similar position to Piper though. She probably has a long lost international drug dealing ex-girlfriend too.

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    great article! though i might add that if you haven’t yet finished the entire season of oitnb, there might be some spoilers for you too. i’m not quite done yet and accidentally read a spoiler of the show

  15. Thumb up 3

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    This was such an interersting read, Riese. I can’t get over the differences in the criminal justice system in the US compared with the UK, and I can’t imagine how it will ever change as it needs to.
    Very sad to read, but really well written and informative none the less!

  16. Thumb up 5

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    Thank you so much for writing this article. It is amazing to see the comparisons between the book and the series, and to get some real-life facts regarding the people who show up as characters.

    There is one quoted part from the book where Piper Kerman shows her lack of knowledge about trans women. She talks about Vanessa’s lack of hormones causing her to “[retain] several male characteristics that would have been less evident otherwise, most notably her voice.”

    For trans women who have already been subjected to testosterone, hormone replacement therapy does not affect voice. At all. Basically, several effects of testosterone are a one-way trip, and voice is one of them. Once it does its thing to your vocal chords, there’s no going back. The best you can do is retrain your voice to sound different. It helps to have formal training in singing.

    Trans guys don’t suffer the same fate: Once they are on testosterone long enough, their voices drop. Permanently. There’s no going back for them, either.

    While the quote is directly from the book, it might help to point out that Piper got the facts wrong there.

  17. Thumb up 1

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    Great piece. Something tells me that Laverne and the rest of the cast are all reading Autostraddle’s continuing coverage.
    For people who’ve read the book: does Kerman have the same attitude of ‘I’m no different than anyone in here’ and the same emphasis on people going to prison because they made bad choices?
    That was part of the series that really annoyed me. Chapman’s mother tells her that she’s different from the other prisoners (read: better) and she responds by identifying with them, but as well intentioned as she is, she totally ignores her privilege in a way that the show didn’t interrogate. Talking about prison as a consequence of bad choices is absurd when you don’t acknowledge the limited range of choices available to each prisoner…

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      The way the justice system actually functions, the list of “bad choices” includes things such as self-defense against a person more privileged than you, doing anything in your front yard while black, standing on the street corner while trans…

  18. Thumb up 0

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    I’m enjoying this article. Registered to say: Every time I see Kerman say Nora is like a white Eartha Kitt, I get steamed. Eartha Kitt is (and will always be)Eartha Kitt – that is to say, magical, determined, and completely amazing – and her antecedents were black, white, and Cherokee – I don’t know, I guess it is a weird reaction but URGH. I guess it makes me think of describing a gallon of Neapolitan ice cream as “vanilla Neapolitan” – just reductive and dumb.

    Now back to the article.

  19. Thumb up 0

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    Love the article, however I would just say that real Larry was not cool in saying:

    “Brassier, bolder, more adventurous than anyone I know, Piper is not your average girl. But she is still a pretty, blond Smith grad who looks as if she descended from Mayflower stock: the last girl you’d expect to end up behind bars. I mean, come on, an international drug ring? Didn’t see that one coming.”

    in his modern love article.

    It just sounds really wrong. I know that white privilege makes it so, but still the way he phrased was a little too much. “mayflower stock” ? A little much.

  20. Thumb up 0

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    So basically the entire storyline of Alex and Piper meeting up in prison is an almost complete fabrication by the show? Also, just an observation…although pixelated, the mugshot of the real “Nora” looks more like Big Boo than Alex Vause.

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