It Happened To Me: I spent a year in a women’s prison

Life in prison does suck, but she managed to unearth some beauty as well—mostly in the women around her.

Piper Kerman — the author of the frank and funny new memoir Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison — will be the first person to tell you how lucky she is.

Piper Kerman.

In 1998, federal officers showed up at her New York apartment to bring her in and indict her on drug-trafficking and money-laundering charges from long ago: After graduating from Smith College, Kerman had headed out on an ill-advised trek through Europe and Asia with her girlfriend, a drug smuggler for a major West African kingpin.

When she pleaded guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence, her friends and family wrote letters vouching for her newfound strength of character and asking the court for leniency. While she spent six years waiting for her prison term to begin, her boyfriend proposed. And while she spent her 13 months in a federal prison — 11 of them in Danbury, Conn.’s Federal Correctional Institution — he dutifully drove up to visit every week. So her book is no whiny, poor-me, life-in-prison-sucked screed.

Make no mistake — life in prison does suck, and Kerman doesn’t sugarcoat it. But she managed to unearth some beauty as well, mostly in the women around her. Practically as soon as she arrived, other prisoners brought her, she writes:

“a bar of soap, a real toothbrush and toothpaste, shampoo, some stamps and writing materials, some instant coffee, Cremora, a plastic mug, and perhaps most important, shower shoes to avoid terrible foot fungi. It turned out these were all items one had to purchase at the prison commissary … I wanted to bawl every time another lady brought me a personal care item and reassured me, ‘It’ll be OK, Kerman.'”

She talked to us about life in Danbury (it’s not a “hyper-violent place like Oz“), her amazing now-husband, and why she felt compelled to write about what she considers her “biggest moral failing.”

What was it like — telling your boyfriend and your parents that you had been indicted on drug charges?

Kerman: That was a really scary thing — to reveal such a terrible thing from your past. That was a moment when, on the one hand, I so much needed those people, and on the other hand I had really betrayed their trust. But the thing that was really incredible was their response — which was concern and forgiveness and basically understanding. My parents were shocked and horrified, and they really responded with concern. That was very humbling.

And you kind of hit the husband jackpot.

Pretty much. He’s wonderful. He really has been a stalwart. He’s really just a very loyal and determined individual. I don’t know how I would have survived the experience without him.

How often did he visit? He actually wrote about his experience in the New York Times, right?

Yes, Larry came up very often, every week, and that makes a huge difference on a personal and emotional level. They’ve shown that prisoners who are able to maintain contact with their friends and family are much less likely to re-offend and end up back in prison. And there are a lot of barriers — it’s hard for folks to get back to the prison frequently; often prisoners are sent to prisons very far away from home.

What did you guys talk about when he was there?

Our visits were fantastic. He would keep me up to date on what was going on in the outside world, what was going on with our friends and families. And he became very intimate with what I was going through — as intimate as someone can possibly be if they’re not behind bars. He knew a lot about my prison job [first in the electric shop, then in construction] and the people I was friends with. We talked about the future a lot during those visits. That’s one of the reasons visits are so important — it keeps a person focused on the future and the fact that they’re going to go home.

Toward the end of your sentence, you started to wonder if you were ever going to go home. Then you were moved to a maximum-security Chicago prison to testify in a big drug trial — as part of your plea agreement. What was that like?

The difference between a minimum-security prison and a maximum-security prison is very dramatic … the funny thing is, the conditions of your imprisonment really make a tremendous difference in your mental and emotional well-being. And because the conditions were so terrible [in Chicago], it was hard to stay focused on the future. Also, they weren’t giving me any information [about my release.]

And, in Chicago, you weren’t able to run on the track, do yoga — anything you did in the Danbury prison to cope or relieve stress.

Those rituals are things that helped me stay focused, helped me stay sane. In Danbury there were tons of rituals. When someone was going home there were a whole host of rituals: She would give away things she had bought at commissary; make a special meal.

And, let’s talk about the “amenities” — or lack thereof. I couldn’t believe you didn’t have underwear in Chicago. I mean, it seems so basic. Or at Danbury, they gave you laundry soap, but not body soap. A toothbrush, but not toothpaste.

There’s a lot of things that people assume that the prison system provides — whether it’s toothpaste or rehabilitation programs. And those don’t happen. Rehabilitation programs are few and far between, and they’re also the first thing to get cut during budget crunches. I would think in theory there would be an incentive for the facility to provide those kinds of things. Obviously, if the people can’t take care of brushing their teeth then taxpayers are doing to have to pay more for things like emergency dental care. The problem with the prison system is that we sort of expect that people will go to prison and learn a lesson; but the lesson that people learn is how to be a prisoner — and that’s not a very valuable lesson once you come home. That’s why the title is the “Orange is the New Black.” Women are the fastest growing segment of the prison population. And [the system] is unprepared to deal with female prisoners — right down to, you get there and there’s no underwear.

Even when you were released, you got a pair of men’s jeans.

They gave me men’s clothes. And you know, in Danbury, the uniforms we wore were leftover from when it had been a men’s prison. I think female prisoners have unique needs. And a lot of folks say, who cares what kind of needs prisoners have, but it costs taxpayers an enormous amount of money to imprison somebody. So as a society we should think long and hard about what prisons are for and why are they useful. If they’re really to ensure public safety, is the way we’re currently using them the most effective way? For many nonviolent offenders I think there are other ways.

Like what?

For nonviolent low-level offenders, sentences that happened in the community. Also, probation and parole, including community service — obviously drug treatment if that’s an important part of the person’s problem — would be much more effective and cost far, far less than a prison cell.

I was amazed by the “reentry programs.” When they had a sort of job fair and told the prisoners to look for jobs on the Internet, but, of course, you guys didn’t have computers.

This comes back to that perception that there are a lot of rehabilitation programs — when in fact there are not. Particularly in the prisons that I lived in, the preparation for reentry was really not a big point and not something that the prison did well. The reentry classes were all taught by prison staff.

[Women face] some really, really consistent challenges in terms of getting their life together and staying on the straight and narrow: safe and stable housing, employment, and especially, in terms of women, reunification with their family; 80 percent of the women in prison are mothers and a huge percentage of them [before their incarceration] had sole custody of their children. So what’s become of their children and getting their families back together are really big challenges. Also, health care. That makes a huge difference in terms of being successful and living a law-abiding life.

Of course, you were really lucky — you had a fiancé, an apartment to go home to, a job that someone had created for you…

I’m beyond lucky — those challenges that almost all prisoners face, I was very fortunate on all those fronts. I think the vast majority of prisoners come from our most vulnerable communities and our most vulnerable families. They have been sent to our worst schools throughout their lives. Prisons throughout the years have been used as a solution for poverty…. Most of the women I was in prison with didn’t even have a high school degree. That’s not simply an issue of personal responsibility.

So why did you want to write this book?

When I came home, everyone wanted to know what I had experienced and what I had seen. But [what they wanted to hear was] my personal story of being in prison — which is just my story, right? I don’t purport to speak for all prisoners by any stretch, but my story relates back to the lives of millions of Americans. We imprison more people than any other country in the world; there are almost 2½ million Americans in prison right now. And obviously all those people have families and communities around them. You’re talking about millions and millions of Americans who my story relates to. My story isn’t identical, but it is very relevant. So I think if readers have a more direct understanding of what goes on there, I think that’s something that would help people maybe think a little differently about what prisons are or are not useful for.

You know, I learned a few things from the book. For example, I had no idea sanitary pads had so many uses! As a cleaning product?!

They’re so very useful! You know, it’s a situation in which you will be very resourceful — work with what you’ve got. I always used to say that the prison facility was held together with Scotch tape. We’re talking about a very run-down old facility which was kind of duct-taped together; and along the same lines of having to come up with your own toothpaste, you have to come up with your own cleaning supplies and how to make life more normal in every possible way.

Some of the conditions did sound terrible. Bugs in the shower…

The conditions of incarceration are challenging. I don’t think anyone expects prisons to be nice or luxurious, but I think the thing that you see is that human beings, and especially women, are resourceful, and make the best of things. They try to carve out a little bit of pleasure in a terrible place.

Like crafting gourmet meals in the microwave?

[Laughs] I don’t know if you would truly call them gourmet, but they were generally very tasty. They were made out of what you bought in the commissary, things you could buy in any bodega. Someone would buy some corn chips and then manage to re-create chilaquiles. You could make fried noodles out of ramen noodles. Some of the things that women were able to produce were pretty amazing. I was not an expert — the only thing I managed to make was prison cheesecake.

And you helpfully include the recipe! Have you made prison cheesecake since you’ve been out?

I haven’t. A lot of people are very curious about it, so perhaps I’ll test my skills again.

Do you still run and do yoga?

I do. Not quite so obsessively, but yes I do. And you know, I was not into yoga, but Yoga Janet — who so generously taught me and another group of women — that was a gift that was just incredibly valuable to me in terms of coping with stress and things that were beyond my control. It seems so funny to have to learned yoga in that setting, but I will always be grateful to her.

Before you went to prison, your lawyer told you, “Don’t make any friends.” But it seems like a good thing you didn’t listen to him.

I was very lucky I was able to afford a private attorney, which many prisoners do not. But that’s advice that would have been very hard to follow. I don’t know how I would have been able to survive prison without friends on the inside, both in that practical sense — on day 1 you’re not going to have toothpaste — but on an emotional level. It’s not like I got along with every single person I met. But I would say, across the board, most women in prison are simply trying to survive a very bad experience and folks do [help] each other to get through it, and that was incredibly important above all other things.