Book Article

Piper Kerman: The Ex-Con Next Door

The ''Orange is the New Black,'' author writes about her year in prison

Even today, all these years later, Piper Kerman, 40, can't really explain what she was thinking when she got entangled with the drug traffickers who would eventually land her in prison. ''I was at a moment in my life when risk-taking behavior was really attractive,'' says the author, whose vivid, revealing new book, Orange Is the New Black, chronicles her brief life of crime and subsequent stint in a federal lockup. ''With young people, there is a much lower sense of the potential consequences of your actions.'' Still, most Smith grads don't get mixed up with a West African drug lord. ''People do incredibly dumb things every day,'' she says. ''I'm sure anyone can relate to that on some level. I think the most interesting part of the story is not this stupid, reckless crime I committed, but rather the consequences I had to pay.''

Kerman got drawn into the drug ring right after college, lured by her then girlfriend, who was already involved. She says she never actually handled drugs, but she did smuggle cash for the group before getting spooked and cutting off ties. She moved to San Francisco, got a job, and thought she'd put it all behind her. Then one day the doorbell rang. It was two U.S. customs officers, there to inform her she'd been indicted. ''It was a terrible moment,'' she says, sitting in the living room of the cozy Brooklyn apartment she shares with her husband and two cats. ''A visceral, physical moment — heart pounding, temples pounding. It was apparent to me very quickly that the consequences would be heavy.''

A 15-month sentence, to be exact. Kerman pleaded guilty to money laundering, and in February 2004, she headed off into the unknown. The federal correctional facility in Danbury, Conn., turned out to be neither a violent hellhole nor a cushy ''Club Fed,'' and while life was dehumanizing in countless ways both big and small, the inmates, she was surprised to discover, formed a remarkably close-knit and supportive community. ''The other prisoners were kinder and more generous and more interesting than I possibly could have imagined,'' she says. ''Prisoners rely on each other to a tremendous degree for day-to-day functioning and emotional support getting through an incredibly difficult experience. Those relationships can be really intense.''

There were plenty of tough times, of course, moments of guilt and loneliness and frustration. Even in minimum security, conditions were grim. The roof leaked. Black maggots periodically appeared in one of the bathrooms. Rehabilitative programs were few and often astonishingly clueless (a class on postprison housing covered insulation and aluminum siding). The low point came when Kerman's grandmother became gravely ill. Unable to penetrate the faceless bureaucracy to secure a furlough, she never got to say goodbye. ''It's devastating when you confront how selfish actions you've taken are preventing you from being there for the people who need you the most,'' she says. ''That's a terrible, terrible thing.''

But there were good times, too, like a surprise birthday party that featured homemade cards and prison approximations of enchiladas and cheesecake. ''People are incredibly resilient, and they figure out a way to create their own joy,'' says Kerman. ''That's totally inspiring.''

On March 4, 2005, after serving 13 months of her sentence, Kerman was released. Her transition back into freedom proved easier than most. ''I knew a lot of women who were going home to homeless shelters,'' she says, ''and I came home to this nice apartment.'' A friend created a job for her at his telecom company (she now does communications work for nonprofits), and soon life started to get back to normal.

Except for one thing: People were endlessly fascinated by Kerman's experience. ''There was just such a voracious interest in the story from everyone I knew,'' she says. ''People wanted to hear every detail. In some cases they would sit and listen for hours.'' So she decided to write a book. Not surprisingly, publishers were as intrigued as her friends, although it took some effort to draw out the story's emotional punch. ''When I met her, I found her extremely poised, and a little chilly and guarded,'' says Spiegel & Grau co-publisher Julie Grau, who edited Orange. ''She had an incredible story, but it took her a while to open up. You want to know what's going on inside.''

Kerman ultimately did dig deep, and that self-revelation now makes her anxious. ''I'm nervous as hell,'' she says about the book's release. ''It's hard to put yourself out there and talk about something that's so personal. To talk about the worst thing you ever did and the consequences. But it's a really important subject — one that affects not just me but millions and millions of Americans.''

Although she's in touch with some of her prison friends, none have read the book yet. ''I hope they find that it's respectful toward them and their lives,'' she says. ''I hope they feel like I've captured accurately what that life is like. But I don't know what they'll think. I hope they like it, you know?''

Originally posted Apr 16, 2010 Published in issue #1098 Apr 16, 2010 Order article reprints