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Behind the Bars: One Woman’s Year in Prison

5 minute read
Frances Romero

The post-college years can be a tough time for young adults trying to find their place in the world. For 24-year-old Piper Kerman, who in 1993 was one year out of Smith College, it meant seeking risky situations. “With a thirst for bohemian counterculture and no clear plan,” Kerman began smuggling drug money for her then girlfriend. In Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, Kerman describes how, after leaving that life behind, she was tracked down, indicted on drug-smuggling and money-laundering charges and sentenced to federal prison for 15 months after pleading guilty to laundering. By the time she started her sentence, in 2004, more than 10 years had passed since her offense. TIME spoke with Kerman, now 40, about her year in prison and how she is still rattled by the sound of keys.

In comparison to what’s often reported about prisons, the level of violence or misconduct seemed almost nonexistent during your 13 months inside. Why is that?
The reality of who’s in prison and what happens there is very different than what’s depicted in popular culture. What we tend to see is the extreme. I’m not saying the extreme situations don’t exist, but they’re not the only truth. The vast majority of people in my camp had been convicted of low-level, nonviolent offenses or nonviolent “paper crimes” — financial crimes, fraud, that kind of thing. It’s not surprising that nonviolent offenders are not much inclined toward violence, even in a prison setting.

That’s one of the reasons I would argue that it’s a questionable choice to spend such enormous amounts of money confining nonviolent offenders. If they could be more effectively supervised in their communities, rather than shipped off to prison, that could potentially save a lot of money for taxpayers without compromising public safety. And it’s potentially much more humane and less destructive to the community.

(Watch a video about Mexico’s overcrowded prisons.)

You mention being treated differently because of your blond hair and blue eyes and say that different sections of the prison were called “the ghetto” and “the suburbs” because of the semi-segregation of prisoners. Were the racial politics of prison that obvious?
Racism runs rampant in the criminal-justice system as a whole. When you look at the disparity in terms of who’s in prison, it’s indefensible. In other words, if you are poor person — and particularly a poor person of color — you’re going to be treated differently in the criminal-justice system.

The book ends with you leaving prison. What were the biggest adjustments to the outside world?
The challenges or barriers to re-entry [for most prisoners] are really consistent: safe and stable housing, employment and, especially for female prisoners, family reunification. Most female prisoners are mothers. I had a really different situation. I had a safe apartment in Brooklyn waiting for me. [When I was released,] they opened up that door, and I walked out wearing men’s clothes, with $28 in my pocket and my fiancé waiting for me. A friend of ours who leads a company had created a job in the marketing department there, so the week after I got home, I was back at work. My family had the resources to really be there for me both when I was in prison and when I came home.

(See TIME’s photo-essay “Boxing Out of Poverty and Prison in Thailand.”)

How often do you hear from the women you were imprisoned with?
A lot of the women that I have heard from are doing well, which makes sense. Someone that’s in dire straits probably would not be able to reach out to me. I do know some folks who’ve had a lot of trouble finding work because of their convictions. I also know that a couple of the young women who I met in prison have gone back. That’s heartbreaking. Those young women that I met were so impressionable, and they’re really receptive to positive reinforcement but really easily influenced.

(See “Getting the Juvenile-Justice System to Grow Up.”)

It’s been about 17 years since your original offense. How do you look back at that time in your life?
Someone asked me recently, “Are you glad that this all happened because you learned a lot?” I’m incredibly grateful for the things that I’ve learned, but of course if I could turn back the clock and do things differently, I would. And the main reason is not because of the turmoil in my life, but because what I now recognize is the impact of my actions. Of course, I put my family through hell, but more importantly, I recognized that my actions contributed to other peoples’ addictions. And that’s something I have to live with for the rest of my life.

What things do you still carry with you from your year in prison?
I still don’t like the sound of keys. When I first came home, that was much more marked. I also carry a much greater sense that in the wide world, differences in opportunity create terribly disparate paths. I think it’s hard for middle-class people to really recognize that. When opportunities for education or opportunities for good health care are not equal, those failures wind up playing out in the criminal-justice system.

(See “A Road Map to Prevention.”)

After leaving prison but before publishing this book, did you keep your prison stay a secret from people?
I didn’t keep it a secret. I’ve come to a point where I’m like, “You have to live your life. You have to be who you are.” In my day-to-day life, do I [mention my prison time along with] my handshake? Not necessarily. But it’s certainly not a secret — and certainly no secret anymore.

See pictures of puppies behind bars.

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