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Piper Kerman was 24 and a new graduate of Smith College when she smuggled a suitcase of drug money across international borders. A decade later, that day came back to haunt her, tearing her away from a privileged life and landing her in a Connecticut prison. Kerman’s memoir “Orange Is The New Black: My Year In A Women’s Prison” documented her 13 months behind bars and became the basis for the popular Netflix series. The second season was released this past Friday. Drawing from her own experience, Kerman now dedicates much of her time to advocating for prison reform and awareness about female incarceration. Piper Kerman joins Diane in studio.
Disparity In Prison Sentences
Imprisonment is “inappropriately used as a tool of control” in communities of color, said Piper Kerman, author of the book “Orange Is The New Black: My Year In A Women’s Prison.”
Kerman, whose book inspired the Netflix television show of the same name, discussed the issue while answering a question from a caller who asked about Kemba Smith, a black woman who committed a crime similar to Kerman’s but was given a sentence of 24.5 years in prison with no possibility of parole. Kerman’s sentence was 15 months.
Watch Kerman’s full response in the clip below.
Piper Kerman On How Her Book Has Influenced Perception of Prison
Watch live video of Piper Kerman in studio as she discusses her book and the Netflix series “Orange Is The New Black.”
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. When Piper Kerman began her 15-month sentence in a Connecticut prison, she became one of the majority of female prisoners serving time for nonviolent crimes. In a decade that's seen an alarming rise in female incarceration, Piper Kerman's memoir "Orange is the New Black" and the Netflix series of the same name have helped bring prison reform into the public discourse.
MS. DIANE REHMAnd it's giving us a rare glimpse into the life of the female inmate. The second season of the TV series based on her memoir was just released Friday. Piper Kerman joins me in the studio. And throughout the hour, I'll look forward to hearing your questions and comments. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Piper Kerman, it's good to meet you.
MS. PIPER KERMANHi, Diane. It's good to meet you too.
REHMAnd I want to let listeners know we're live streaming today's show. You can watch by following us at Google Hangout. We've just shared that link on our Facebook and Twitter pages. So you can watch, listen, or do both. And for our listeners who may not know, Piper, tell us how you ended up as an inmate in a Connecticut prison.
KERMANWhen I walked in my college graduation at Smith College in 1992, I was part of a very fortunate group of young women that was the first women's institution in whose walls I lived. And I walked out into a surprisingly uncertain future despite having, you know, a college degree in hand and many advantages behind me.
KERMANI didn't really know what my next step was. I didn't know what I was going to do with my life. I drifted a bit. And it was that point in my life when I crossed paths with an older woman, and she seemed very sophisticated and very worldly to me. And she was, in fact, very worldly. She was involved in narcotics trafficking. And rather than run in the other direction, I followed her around the globe.
REHMSo you knew right from the start that she was involved in narcotics trafficking.
KERMANShe revealed that to me very early.
KERMANAnd, yeah, I should have -- self-preservation should have kicked in. But instead, I followed her to Bali and to Zurich and all kinds of places that seemed very exciting to me and very adventurous.
REHMHow long a period were you with her?
KERMANLess than a year. The day came, of course, that I could no longer sort of hold myself apart from what was happening around me. And that was the day that she asked me to carry a bag of money from Chicago to Brussels. And she said, you know, I really need you to do this. And she was scared, and so I was scared too. And I carried the bag of money. And after I did that, I was even more scared because I knew that I had crossed this bright line, and I had broken the law in a really serious way. And so, about a month after I carried that bag of money, I ended that relationship.
KERMANI made my way back to the United States. I sort of broke all ties with my ex-lover and these other people. And I moved forward with my life, and I was lucky to be able to do that. But the consequences of our actions come back to us sooner or later. And in my case, in 1998, federal agents knocked on my door. I was living in New York then with my then-boyfriend Larry Smith. And they said, you've been indicted in federal court, and you'd better get ready to face the consequences of your past choices.
REHMSo -- now, you knew that there was an investigation underway before the indictment was presented to you?
KERMANNo. No, I had no idea.
REHMYou had no idea?
REHMHow can that be?
KERMANOh, you know, I think, particularly when you're talking about the federal government, things move slowly but relentlessly. I think that's...
REHMBut in the back of your mind, were you worried that whole time?
KERMANI was, of course, worried and thought about, you know, the things that I had done in the past. But as every year passes, that sort of is more in the rearview mirror.
REHMSure. And what about your boyfriend? Did he know of your past activities?
KERMANNo. He knew nothing. And so literally that day, I, you know, the two federal agents sort of said, would you like to make a comment? And I said, I think I'd better talk to a lawyer. And then I went tearing off to talk to Larry, and the whole crazy story came tumbling out. And he really -- at first, he thought I was making an elaborate joke. He was just like, what, what are you talking about? And he was really remarkable. He stood by me the whole way in a way that was very profound and very sustaining.
REHMAnd so important to your continued thinking positively as much as you could. All right. So you were indicted in 1998, but you did not actually go to prison until 2004.
KERMANThere was a series of legal delays which were caused by the U.S.'s efforts to extradite a drug kingpin from overseas, which they failed to do. So eventually, in 2003, they began to proceed sending folks to prison who were on my indictment. So in February of 2004, I turned myself in at the federal correctional institution in Danbury, Conn. to begin serving a 15-month sentence.
REHMAnd I think we have a clip from the Netflix series. This is the day that Piper Chapman, the character representing you, surrenders herself for the prison sentence. Let's hear it.
TAYLOR SCHILLINGI'm here to surrender.
UNIDENTIFIED MALEOh. Okay, then.
SCHILLINGDid he look surprised to you when I said that I was here to surrender? Didn't he look surprised, like what the hell is she doing here?
JASON BIGGSI -- I didn't notice.
SCHILLINGWell, you look surprised to me. I look like (censored). My eyes are all puffy.
BIGGSYou're worried about how you look?
SCHILLINGWell, they're gonna know that I was crying. It's a sign of weakness. You can't show any weakness. That's what all of the books said.
SCHILLINGDon't call me sweetie.
REHMPiper, talk about your feelings on that day.
KERMANWell, Larry and I made the drive from New York City where we live up to Connecticut. And if anyone has ever seen the Spike Lee film "25th Hour," which is about, you know, a drug offender who's about to start doing time, there's a whole scene in that film of driving to the prison to self-surrender, which resonates a lot. And when we arrived at the facility in Danbury, the first thing that I saw was this towering, incredibly vicious-looking, triple-layer razor wire fence.
KERMANAnd I just looked at that fence. And I'd really tried to prepare myself for that experience over the, you know, close to six years that I'd been waiting to go to prison. But I remember looking at that fence and saying, oh, wait, I thought I was going to be in a minimum security prison. I was really scared. And when I walked through that fence, through chamber after chamber and the fences slamming behind you, that's the moment that you're like, there's no escaping from what I face.
REHMPiper, where were your parents in all this?
KERMANMy parents were an incredible source of strength to me. They were shocked and stunned back in 1998 when I called them and said, this is what's happening. But they were, of course, incredibly worried, and they just were very forgiving to me, for which I'm very grateful...
KERMAN...and really, really were incredible lifeline while I was incarcerated. And that is true for all incarcerated people. Their family and their friends on the outside are really important lifelines. That's one of the things that helps you do the time, is knowing that there's people on the outside who have a stake in your survival and a stake in your success.
REHMAnd, of course, you've written this book as not only a memoir but really trying to help others understand what that whole experience is like and to help the general public understand what prison life, especially for women, is like.
KERMANMm, absolutely. Even from the first day in prison, it was clear to me that the experience was not going to be what I expected. The image of prisons and of prisoners in this country is of relentless violence, uncontrollably violent people in uncontrollably violent places. And that was not my experience. I thought that if I told the story well of my own experience and the way my life intersected with other women's while I was locked up that people might come away from the book with a different idea about who is in prison, for example, women, and why they're there and what really happens to people behind prison walls.
REHMAt the same time, you were able to really make some good friends while you were there.
KERMANMm hmm, absolutely. And so that's certainly not what I was thinking about when I was looking at that razor wire fence, was that I would forge these relationships which would be so sustaining, which would literally help with my survival, and, you know, I would just learn so much from other people. You know, you think of surviving prison as this very isolating experience -- and it is, it's very isolating, it's very lonely, and there's a prison trope, you know, you walk in alone, you walk out alone, which tries to reinforce that isolation -- but what truly helps you survive prison is definitely your relationships with other people.
REHMPiper Kerman, she is the author of the memoir "Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison." Her 2010 memoir inspired the Netflix series of the same name. The second season of "Orange Is the New Black" was released this past Friday. We are live video streaming today's show. You can watch by following our Google Hangout. We've just shared that link on our Facebook and Twitter pages. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. Piper Kerman is with me. She's author of the memoir, "Orange is The New Black," which, of course, has inspired the Netflix series of the same name. And we are video-streaming today's show. You can watch by following our Google hangout. We've shared that link on our Facebook and Twitter pages.
REHMJust before the break, Piper, you were talking about the friendships you made and I am remembering so vividly the first day of your imprisonment when you walked into that cell and here were several women.
LIN TUCCIDon't make your bed.
TUCCIWe'll make it for you.
CHAPMANOh, no. That's okay. You don't need to do that.
TUCCIHoney, we'll make the bed. We know how.
CHAPMANI know how to make a bed.
TUCCIWe know how to do it so it'll pass inspection. You can help clean. We clean everything with the maxi-pads.
TUCCIYep, it's a head scratcher, but that's what we got.
CHAPMANSo we make our beds in the morning before they…
TUCCINo. You sleep on top of the bed with the blanket over you.
CHAPMANWhat if I want to sleep in the bed?
TUCCILook, you can do what you want. But you will be the only one in this entire prison that does. You want that? Be my guest.
REHMTell me why that rule was there, Piper.
KERMANThat exchange between Chapman and DeMarco really reinforces that there are not only prison rules, the rules of the institution that take place, like count time and, you know, inspections and so on and so forth. But there are prisoner rules. So these are the unofficial rules that the prisoners themselves devise.
KERMANTo govern their life in this, in this place where you have to make your life. And so that rule about, you know, everyone sleeping on top of a perfectly made bed, stems from the need to pass inspection. So the prison rules, of course, relate to the prisoner rules. And so you've got to pass inspection. And the reason that it's important to prisoners is because you're ranking of inspection determines when you get to eat.
KERMANSo the people who do the best on cleanliness inspections get to eat first. So thence passes this thing where suddenly hundreds and even thousands of women are all sleeping on top of these perfectly made beds. Not because the institution tells them to do it, but because the other prisoners do. Because if you've got a sloppy roommate you're going to flunk inspection and you're going to be eating the dregs of not even very good food.
REHMWere there actually five women in that cell?
KERMANSix, six women. So…
KERMANYeah, six, three bunk beds. And I love that scene. Right from the very first episode of the first season, the show makes dramatic departures from the true story, which is told in the book. But that scene is almost verbatim from the book.
KERMANAnd it's amazing. Every time I've watched that scene -- and I have watched that scene many times -- you know, the details of the production design in the show, you know, the acting is phenomenal, I think, it really captures what it's like in a minimum security women's federal prison in a way that I am so impressed by.
REHMYou have mentioned food and whether you get food several times. Did you actually get into any trouble about food?
KERMANOh, food is really important, you know, access to food, food also can help signal hierarchies in prison. So, again, you know, you're getting to eat first or getting to eat contraband food or getting to eat specially prepared food. Those things are all really important.
KATE MULGREWWho's this?
NATASHA LYONNEOh, this is Chapman. She's new. Self-surrender. Thinks she's fancy.
MULGREWHere, Fancy, have a yogurt.
CHAPMANWhat do I have to do for it?
MULGREWYou are new. You are one of us. Consider it a gift.
CHAPMANThank you. Thank you so much. The food here is disgusting.
REHMDid you by any chance utter those exact words?
KERMANI did not utter those exact words, but I did, in fact, sit at a cafeteria table and ignorantly insult the woman who ran the kitchen.
KERMANAnd I think I actually made a joke about hunger strikes and, you know, one of the other prisoners at the table is sort of trying to kick me under the table. And I can only say that that woman set me straight so quickly. It didn't occur to me in that first week that I spent in prison, which is when that incident happened, that anyone would take pride in their prison job.
KERMANBut this is a woman who worked year after year, you know, she'd be on her feet from 4:00 in the morning until 4:00 in the afternoon, feeding hundreds and hundreds of other women. And she was very proud of what she did. So she took great offense at my comments. And I did have to make amends to her. Though, fortunately, it did not take the same form as was depicted in the show.
REHMYou -- in the television series someone talks very quietly out of hearing of the kitchen head about how old the food is and how it actually came from Desert Storm and mold had to be scraped off it. Did you encounter that kind of food?
KERMANYes. That dialogue from the show comes from the book. So the question of where does prisoners food come from, is often an open question. The quality of the food you're fed varies wildly. Within a single institution and certainly from one kind of a prison or a jail to another. So frankly, in a federal prison you might have better access to food than in a state prison, or God forbid, a county or a city jail. The conditions in county and city jails tend to be the worst.
REHMWorst in that they are old, food may be inedible, as it were?
KERMANYes. I mean, that was certainly my experience…
KERMAN…when I spent time in a federal jail, is that the food was, by and large, incredibly inedible. And I remember there were these dessert parfaits they served us in federal jail. And we got them and they had stickers on the top of them. And when you peeled them off they said Kentucky Fried Chicken. And you just wondered how old is this parfait, where, what has its history been, what journey has it traveled to arrive in a federal jail.
REHMWhen did you actually realize that this book was going to be made into a television series?
KERMANThe book was published in 2010. And, you know…
REHMAfter you had served your time.
KERMANYeah, I came home from prison in 2005. I began to write the book in earnest in 2007. And it was published in 2010. And I had never published anything before. And I was grateful to find readers at all, very grateful. And, you know, one remarkable reader was Jenji Kohan, who was given the book by a friend of hers. And I was on book tour in Los Angeles. And it was arranged for us to have lunch. And so we met for the first time.
KERMANAnd Jenji is an insatiably curious person. And what was really encouraging to me about that meeting was that she simply asked what felt like millions of questions. She was so curious about the considerations great and small to living your life behind bars, which really told me that she wasn't coming to the potential project with a really preconceived idea.
REHMDid you ever expect, as you wrote this book, that somehow it could or would evolve into what millions of people are now watching?
KERMANI think that every writer has to fantasize finding an audience, because otherwise you couldn't go on. You'd never finish writing anything. But the evolution, the adaptation of the book into a show, which I think is a really strong, really amazing adaptation that far exceeds anything that I could have imagined.
REHMBut now your message really has become, we've got a take a closer look at what's going on behind these walls and behind these bars.
KERMANThat's absolutely true. Our current situation of having the world's biggest prison population in the world -- and the biggest prison population in human history, really -- that's a relatively new phenomenon. That's over the last 30 years that we have grown our prison population from 500,000 people in 1980 to 2.4 million people behind bars today. And women have been the fastest growing part of that population. 800 percent increase in the incarceration of women.
REHMWhy do you think that is?
KERMANThat has been overwhelmingly driven by drug sentencing. The very same mandatory minimum got laws that sent me to prison, sent millions of other people to prison, including a disproportionate number of women.
KERMANTwo-thirds of women in prison have committed non-violent offenses. And that's a shame because most of those women are moms. And, you know, when you incarcerate a mother, it has this seismic effect on her family. The children of incarcerated moms are five times more likely to go into the foster care system than the children of incarcerated dads. And believe me, losing a dad into the prison system is very devastating for a family. But to lose a mother has this effect on those kids and on those communities which is really, really profound.
REHMAnd, of course, some of those women come into prison already pregnant.
KERMANAbsolutely. In every prison facility that I lived in -- and I lived in three of them -- there were pregnant women. And really, quite a few pregnant women, in my opinion. I remember that first day in prison I was being led up to the unit where I was going to live and I saw a woman who was very hugely pregnant. And I was just confused. I mean, I really -- it didn't even occur to me that there would be pregnant women in prison. And yet that was totally common.
KERMANAnd far too often, the conditions that those women go through while they're incarcerated are very bad for their health and for the baby's health. And far too often those women give birth in shackles because that's allowed in the majority of states in this country, which is really shocking.
KERMANIn shackles. It's very barbaric. Twenty-one states have barred that practice by law, but the majority of states have not.
REHMPiper Kerman. She is author of the memoir, "Orange is The New Black." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." It's interesting that the first season, Piper Kerman, depicts Piper Chapman, who plays you, in effect, as a newbie who is trying to get used to everything. But season two begins in a very different way. Let's hear it.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1You seem so calm. Are you a murderer?
CHAPMANNo. I'm not a murderer.
#1Don't yell at me. I'm really scared.
CHAPMANHey, hey, okay. I, I know, I know. You know I cried my whole first night, too. It gets easier. You'll adjust. You'll find friends and pretty soon the food is not gonna make you dry heave. And, you know, you'll even get the hang of pooping while making eye contact with somebody. Everything ends, Brooke, even prison. Try to focus on that.
REHMSo you, in your time there, went from being this total novice, total shocked-by-everything, to someone who is helping another newbie.
KERMANYeah, you have to transition from being a new fish to being, you know, a hardened con. I joke. But you have no choice in a setting like a prison or a jail. You have to adapt. You have to change. And prison will change you in a variety of ways. Not always the ways that folks on the outside expect.
REHMWhy were you moved from one prison to another?
KERMANI was moved out of the camp in Danbury. I served time at a minimum security federal prison camp for 11 months. And then close to the end of my sentence I was suddenly transported to a federal jail in Chicago where I was called as a witness against one of my co-defendants. And that was very unexpected and surprising.
KERMANAnd the journey was very surprising. So my time on the federal transport system, which is also known as Con Air, and especially my time in that federal jail facility, which, frankly, I think that the conditions in that federal jail are much closer to what most prisoners in this country experience. A minimum security federal women's prison camp is pretty much the best-case scenario, if you're unfortunate enough to be incarcerated. And I think the conditions in the federal jail in Chicago were much closer to typical.
REHMAnd the third time? What was the third prison?
KERMANAh, the intermediary stop was Oklahoma City.
KERMANWhich is -- it is sort of like Memphis for FedEx. Every single person who gets put on Con Air is almost surely gonna go through Oklahoma City. It is the closest approximation to limbo that you can possibly imagine.
REHMHow long were you there?
KERMANOh, I was -- I think I was there for two weeks. Really, in a place like Oklahoma City, it becomes very difficult to keep track of the days, because there's so little stimulus. You know, you can't see the outside. There's very, you know, you have no access to newspapers or any kind of mail or anything.
REHMAnd adjusting to a different situation each time, the loss of privacy and the sense of loss of self must have been even greater.
KERMANOh, yeah, it's very profound because during those 11 months in prison in Danbury, I had found my way, in terms of the social ecology of the place. I had found my friends. I had figured out who my adversaries were. I had my prison job. I worked as a construction worker. You have your rituals which help you do your time.
KERMANAnd when you suddenly are moved out of that facility and into another one, not only do you have the learning curve or whatever's going on in that new facility, but you also have that sort of sense of loss of all those things that you carved out and created in the other prison. Not to mention when you run up against much worse conditions.
REHMPiper Kerman. She's the author of the memoir, "Orange is The New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison." Her 2010 memoir inspired the Netflix series.
REHMAnd if you've just joined us, Piper Kerman is with me. Her memoir "Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison" became the Netflix Series of the same name. The second series of -- the second season of "Orange is the New Black" was released this past Friday. Here is an email from A.A. Cheuse in Upper Marlboro, Md. She says, "I can't help but wonder why Ms. Kerman was sentenced to 13 months in prison while Kemba Smith, a young black woman who also became involved in the drug trade through a romantic relationship was sentenced to 24 and-a-half years in prison. Does Ms. Kerman have any idea why that disparity came about?"
KERMANSo the very first night that I went to sleep in prison, I went to sleep saying, I am so lucky. I'm so lucky. I'm so lucky. And I was saying that because I felt like, I'm so lucky I'm only spending one year in this horrible place. During that course of that first afternoon in general population I had met, you know, what seemed like hundreds but was probably dozens of women. And the acceptable icebreaker in prison is not, why are you here? It is, how much time do you have?
KERMANSo people would ask me that and I would sort of quaver back to them that I got a 15-month sentence and they would immediately start calculating, what would I get off for good behavior which, you know, would take me down to 13 months. And then I would squeak back, well how much time do you have? And some of those women were doing short time like I was, but a lot of those women were doing much longer sentences, five years, seven years, ten years, longer.
KERMANSo as the days and the months went on and I grew to know those other women very well -- you know, prisons and jails are close quarters. You will get to know people well, whether you like it or not. But I did. I grew to know all these other women very well. It was impossible to draw the conclusion that their crimes for those women who were doing far more time than I was, that their crimes were so much more serious than my crime. You could only draw the conclusion that they had been treated differently by the criminal justice system because of socioeconomics and, in some cases, because of the color of their skin.
KERMANAnd you don't need to hear that anecdotally from me because the data supports the point that different Americans will be policed differently, they will be prosecuted differently and they will be sentenced differently. So I don't know all of the ins and outs of Kemba Smith's case. I do know that she -- I believe her sentence was ultimately commuted, her unbelievably harsh sentence. But there's no question that communities of color, and especially poor communities of color, are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement. And that people of color are a very disproportionate percentage of our prison and jail system.
KERMANAnd the conclusion that I draw is that the criminal justice system is inappropriately used as a tool of control over communities of color. It is not that, you know, the crime rates between Wall Street folks and people in very poor neighborhoods, you know, are as widely disproportionate as the prison population would lead you to believe.
REHMWhat kind of an impact do you believe your experience and your book has had on precisely that kind of disparity?
KERMANIt's just incredibly important to remind everyone who is outside of the criminal justice system that the people who live their lives, who are currently living their lives in prisons and in jails are human beings and are not data points. Nor are they sort of people who are demonized sometimes in the media, that there are people whose lives have value and meaning. And some of those questions about equity and equality in courts of law. I mean, we have this expectation that all Americans will be equal before the law. And that simply is not borne out by the facts.
REHMHave you been asked to testify before congress?
KERMANI have testified before congress. I've testified before one of the Senate judiciary subcommittees about women and solitary confinement. That's a place also where you see a lack of equity so prisoners of color are more likely to be put into solitary confinement frequently.
KERMANYou know, there's an amazing possibility for reform that is happening right now in congress. So in the mid 1980s, mandatory minimum federal drug sentencing guidelines were put in place. Those laws are the very self same laws that sent me to prison, that sent Kemba Smith to prison, that have sent millions and millions of people to prison in this country. And the brutal truth is this. Legal narcotics are cheaper and more potent and they're more readily available today than when those laws were put on the books. And we have sent, again, millions and millions of Americans to prison in the intervening 30 years.
KERMANSo right now there's an act called the Smarter Sentencing Act. It's in both Houses of Congress. There are identical bills. It's a bipartisan bill so there are very conservative sponsors in addition to Senator Durbin, you know, is the Democratic sponsor in the Senate. This would address this very question of federal mandatory minimum drug sentencing for nonviolent offenders.
KERMANSo when you think about women prisoners and you think about the women that you see on the show or that you read about in my book, to me they are crystallizing examples of people that we have put in prison over the last 30 years that we never would've put in prison before. And, you know, to me it's been a fairly abject failure as a public policy.
REHMAll right. Let's go to the phones to Nat in Greensboro, N.C. You're on the air.
NATHi, Diane. Thanks so much for taking my call.
NATWell, my question, Piper, is that I've watched the TV show and I haven't read the book yet but I would like to. In the show, Alex Boss who I suppose are her real name, is in the same prison with you. Was that actually what happened, the person that caused you to go to prison ended up being there with you?
KERMANThis is an interesting point of skepticism for many viewers. The truth is that I was brought face to face with my ex-lover while I was incarcerated. It takes place in a different way than what is shown on the series. But, in fact, truth is stranger than fiction and we shared a jail cell for a short period of time.
NATWow, that's crazy.
REHMShared a jail cell. My goodness. And how did that work out?
KERMANAwkward, huh? I'm very grateful that the strange twist of fate did bring about that confrontation. There's no question while I really try to take responsibility for my actions, I pled guilty to my crime. For sure I was hanging onto blame for my ex-lover, for my predicament. But I think that actually coming face to face with her after more than a decade had passed -- and of course there is a lot of water under the bridge at that point -- that confrontation really allowed me to relinquish any blame that I was holding for her for my situation.
KERMANAnd to really, really ultimately take full responsibility for my own choices and for the arc of my own life, because we are sort of the authors of our own life, you know...
KERMAN...and a sense of agency is the single most important thing.
REHMPiper, the question -- the actions on your part, the behavior on your part by sexuality has certainly become more and more of an issue worldwide. We are now talking a great deal more about transgender people than we ever have before. Bisexuality is something that certainly has been talked about, has been written about. And here you are writing about it, discussing it. How does your husband feel about this? How do your friends and family feel about this?
KERMANWell, you know, I came out in college so in the late '80s, early '90s, a really different time than this moment in time when it comes to how we understand sexuality and gender. I think we've come so far, it's amazing. When I met my now husband, Larry Smith, I was identified as a lesbian. I had never had a boyfriend before. Larry -- you know, Larry was my first boyfriend. And, you know, we just celebrated our eighth wedding anniversary.
KERMANWe've been together a long time. We've been together 18 years. I think that the spectrum of human sexuality is sort of what makes life rich. And I think that's one of the things that is so thrilling to me about the world that Jenji Cohan created in the show because it's real. You know, we respond to it because it really reflects what we understand about the world around us. And it gives license to everyone to sort of be recognized as human.
REHMDid that notion of the possibility, the prospect of encountering lesbian rape within prison, did that make you fearful?
KERMANNo, not at all. I didn't see any coercive relationships between prisoners while I was in prison. I think that's unusual. I think female prisoners are much more at risk for sexual assault or abuse or exploitation from staff. And that's not just my opinion. The data bears it up. And if you look at PRIA guidelines, which they're trying to force the states -- I'm sorry, PRIA is the Prison Rape Elimination Act. It's a ten-year-old law. Most states are not in compliance with it. And it's a pretty basic law which is intended to protect prisoners in all kinds of facilities.
KERMANSo what I would observe is that in every single woman's prison and jail there are examples of sexual exploitation and abuse. In some cases that flowers into something much more insidious, much more systemic in places like the Tutwiler Prison for Women in Alabama which is currently under investigation by the Department of Justice for having an out-of-control rape culture.
REHMAnd always, or certainly for the most part, from those who are guarding the prisoners?
REHMHere's a question from Facebook. "In the first season of the show there are struggles presented when Piper's fiancé discloses intimate details about her life in prison while she's locked up and unable to set the records straight. Does Piper worry or have any concern her own media presence might cause that same negative feeling for her own real life inmate friends? Has she been in contact with these women and have they seen the show?" And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show.
KERMANSo I'm very grateful for the friendships that I forged while I was in prison. And many of those women are still part of my life. Obviously I was in prison with hundreds and hundreds of women so I don't know what all of them think of the book or of the show. Most of the people that I was in prison with I'm happy to say are home. A very small number of them are still in prison.
KERMANI hear really interesting things. The women that I did time with say really lovely things to me about the book. And the women that I did time with and also lots of other former prisoners say incredibly lovely things to me about the show as well, because it reveals a world which I would say is very intentionally hidden from view. And it portrays prisoners as protagonists. And that, to me, is so important if we want to recognize people as human.
REHMHere is an email from Mike who say, "Okay, I understand prison reform is needed but shouldn't your guest be first and foremost advocating for not committing criminal acts that result in incarceration in the first place? People would then not have to endure conditions in prison if they avoided prison."
KERMANI return again to the question of those friendships and my connection to those other women. I think that a lack of empathy lies at the heart of every crime . And that is certainly true of my own crime. You know, when I was 22, I was really not thinking much about the impact that my actions would have on other people, not those near and dear to me nor people who I didn't even know whose substance abuse or addiction I might be furthering through my actions.
KERMANA lot of the women that I became very close with in prison, their lives had been devastated in some way by substance abuse and addiction. You know, in some cases they had lost a parent to drugs. Their own health might've been devastated. Their own relationship with their children might have been frayed by their addiction. And so it was those relationships with other women that truly helped me comprehend the harm of my own actions. So that is really important.
KERMANI would say though that our drug laws have been profoundly unsuccessful at stemming substance abuse and addiction. And so there's a certain point at which we, as a society, as communities have to say, do we have bad laws on the books, you know, because there's a history of bad laws. There was a time in this country when slavery was the law of the land. There was a time in this country when people of two different races were banned from marrying. So the fact that something is a law doesn't mean that it's right or good.
REHMHow different are you as a human being now as a result of your time in prison?
KERMANI think I'm different in many ways. The really profound thing that I take away from the experience is again that question of equity. And when you go through a struggle and a survival story, like the one that I shared with these women in prison, when other people help you and when the lack of equality between you in terms of, you know, access to a basic education, access to health care, access to opportunity, that inequality becomes intolerable. That's certainly true for me. It would be impossible to walk away from that experience and not talk about the lack of equity that I perceived during the time that I was incarcerated.
REHMWell, I'm glad you're out. I'm glad that it's over and I hope you will be spending a good part of the rest of your life helping others.
KERMANThank you, Diane.
REHMThank you. Piper Kerman. She is author of the memoir "Orange is the New Black," inspired the Netflix series of the same name. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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