In prison, Piper Kerman had to get used to, among other trials, a bathroom infested with insects. Hey, that’s par for the course for those serving time, right? But what really made her recoil was the fact that her “intimate moments — changing clothes, lying in bed, reading, crying — were all . . . available for observation” by attentive male guards. Sexual harassment was “rampant,” and oftentimes pat-downs were more about “groping.”
And though Danbury Prison in Connecticut is considered, by correctional-facilities standards, a “country club,” it was still a far cry from the pampered life the Swampscott-born, Brookline-raised Kerman had known. The blond-haired, blue-eyed Smith College grad came from a family of doctors and lawyers. But in 1992, Kerman was bored with mid-week beach trips to Provincetown and “finished with what was required of me by birth and background.” She was hungry for something beyond her L.L. Bean–bag lifestyle, something more exciting. So she fell into lockstep with the counterculture trends of the early ’90s and got tattoos. She experimented with lesbianism, then hooked up with a woman who just happened to traffic heroin and brought her into the fold.
So began her glorious, if brief, life of crime, chronicled in her fascinating new memoir, Orange Is the New Black (Spiegel and Grau): nights partying in Bali, days spent loafing around Paris — traveling around the world on the money of US addicts.
Back then, Kerman tells the Phoenix by phone from her home in Brooklyn, “Danger was attractive. I think at the heart of any crime is an indifference to another person’s suffering.”
Kerman ultimately left the drug trade and settled into a quiet life in San Francisco, storing her past in the closet. Years later, though, then happily engaged to a man, her indifference caught up with her. The feds indicted her for criminal conspiracy to import heroin — she’d been narced out by her former lover. In 1998, she pleaded guilty to money laundering, and finally began serving a year-long sentence in a federal penitentiary in 2004.
Kerman acknowledges now that she probably would have served a longer sentence, had she not been “able to afford an excellent attorney. . . . I often would say to myself, ‘Is it possible that what [another female prisoner] had done was seven to 10 years worse than what I had done?’ ”
Having never witnessed any violence in prison, Kerman says the worst thing about serving time was being separated from her family. It also meant having every single moment of her life controlled and dictated by the institution. “The only thing prison teaches you is how to be a prisoner,” she tells the Phoenix, and explains that she became obsessed with running on the prison’s quarter-mile track, simply because that was the only time she felt like she could exert some control in her life. “I made 13,000 left turns” running that track, she says.
Since Kerman’s release, she has become an articulate voice calling for reform in three different areas: juvenile justice, criminal justice, and the prison/re-entry systems. “In simplest terms, I’d like to see fewer people in jail, without compromising public safety. We need to ask ourselves, is what we do with non-violent offenders working? Is it making us safer?
“Evidence supports [that] what we do now doesn’t work. The [prison] system has grown so unchecked — it’s a government agency that’s grown without vision or thought.”
Piper Kerman will be reading from Orange Is the New Black at Brookline Booksmith this Tuesday, May 11, at 7 pm. For more information, go to brooklinebooksmith.com.