‘Orange Is the New Black’ got you upset about prison? The real Piper explains what to do about it.

July 23, 2013
Piper Kerman and her husband Larry Smith, shortly after her release.
Piper Kerman and her husband Larry Smith, shortly after her release.

Piper Kerman is a communications consultant with Spitfire Strategies in New York, focusing on nonprofits, philanthropies, and other public interest groups. She served 13 months, between 2004 and 2005, in a federal prison in Danbury, Conn., after pleading guilty to laundering money on behalf of her ex-girlfriend, a heroin trafficker. Her memoir of the experience, "Orange is the New Black," has been adapted by Netflix; its first season is available now, and I'm quite fond of it. We spoke on the phone Tuesday morning; a lightly edited transcript follows. Mild spoilers for the show, though nothing you couldn't find out by reading episode summaries on Netflix.

Looking at the makeup of the show's characters in terms of race, sexual identity, class, etc., how true do you think it's been to Danbury as you experienced it?

It's pretty closely accurate, I think, to the unit that I was in, the minimum security unit. Danbury draws heavily from New York City, in terms of where folks are designated. Also Maine and Pennsylvania. The satellite camp where I spent 13 months was a real mix of folks from Maine, Pennsylvania, and a significant number of folks drawn from other areas contained in the Northeast.

Any prison population is constantly in flux, but generally, I'd estimate the population as 45 percent Latino, including the entire Caribbean diaspora, and then roughly 25 percent white folks and roughly 25 percent African-Americans. I would say the first season of the show reflects the character of Piper Chapman's experience, that there is this social rubric where you initially are welcomed by people of your own racial group. And that's discussed in the show.

But your description in your previous blog post of the changing trends in race and incarceration is totally accurate, and when you look at the system as a whole, and fold in the federal and state system, there's more and more white women.

What are the major cleavages between the federal and state systems, in terms of the kinds of folks who end up in each?

Generally speaking, to end up in federal prison, especially, if you're a woman, it requires a drug-related offense, or some kind of property offense or financial offense that takes place over state lines. What that translates to is a vast percentage of folks who are incarcerated for drug offenses, and folks who are incarcerated for an array of fraud charges, such as credit card or insurance fraud. There were quite a lot of folks who work in the medical field — nurses, pharmacists — who were there for fraud.

There were occasional outlier offenses you'd hear about, but in terms of the bulk of folks, that's what they're there for. The rare occasions in which women commit violent crimes — when you see women killing or hurting their abusers, or domestic violence cases — those women often end up in the state system.

Pablo Schreiber, aka Nicky Sobotka, plays a male guard on Orange is the New Black. (Netflix)
Pablo Schreiber, a.k.a Nicky Sobotka, plays a male guard on "Orange is the New Black." (Netflix)

I was struck in the show that so much of the prison staff was male.

That is completely accurate, in my experience. A huge number of prisons are placed in remote, rural locations. Generally, my experience is that women's prisons are overwhelmingly staffed by men. That may be different in an urban jail, where there's more parity. When I was in jail in Chicago, it was more female. But Danbury was overwhelmingly staffed by men.

There was a situation in Kentucky, with a women's prison that has more than 400 prisoners and that has a rampant sexual abuse problem, where the state ultimately decided that they were not able to address it and just moved the prisoners.

The abuse was by staff or other prisoners?

By staff. Women prisoners are much more at risk for abuse by staff than by other prisoners.

Later in the season, there's an election among the prisoners to select representatives who get to advise the staff. Is that drawn from your experience? Is there any channel for prisoner input like that?

In Danbury, there was a prisoner's advisory council, I believe it was called that, and I was not personally involved with it. In Danbury, that was handpicked by the prison staff. Generally they'd pick longtime prisoners who they knew very well, and they knew what they could expect from those prisoners, and those prisoners were very hip to the way that the system worked. In other words, no elections. Same result as the show, though, since ultimately he hand-picks them.

Piper's counselor on the show is depicted as overtly homophobic. How pervasive an attitude was that?

That's totally accurate as a depiction. Some of the dialogue, if you look at the chapter in my book which details that first day in prison, some of that exchange between Chapman and her counselor is really closely drawn from reality. My counselor was, in truth, fairly obsessed with lesbianism. All sexual contact within prison is barred, whether it's with a staffer or another prisoner, but to a completely different extent it is the obsession of those staffers.

You've become fairly involved with the prison reform movement since getting out. What forms has that taken?

There's two things. I volunteer my time for the Women's Prison Association, and I eventually joined their board. It's the oldest organization that works with criminal justice and involves women, and we do both direct services — lots of direct services — and some advocacy work around things like shackling during childbirth. What I'm really, really proud of is that we do that work at all points. We do some preventative work with women who are at risk of going into the criminal justice system, with alternatives to incarceration, where women are allowed to do a community-based program at home, and then we work on reentry.

Then, in my professional work, I've been able to work on a bunch of criminal justice issues. I was very lucky to work on public defense reform, and to do communications around challenging "stop and frisk" here in New York. So that's all fascinating and important.

How different are the goals of the women's prison reform movement and the prison reform movement more generally? Are there tensions between your priorities and those of people focused on male prisoners?

I wouldn't say that there are tensions. Women in the system overall are small - less than 10 percent of the overall criminal justice population, including people who are in probation and parole as well. There are more in probation or parole than are physically incarcerated.

The needs of women in the criminal justice system are distinct in some ways from the situation of men, particularly around parenting. A large number of men in the system are parents, and that's important, but women often have primary responsibility for the care of children under 18, so their incarceration is particularly challenging.

Reform work is segmented in a way that reflects the system. There's reform around stuff like sentencing and the court system, that's the front-end, and then there's the conditions of confinement, and then the policy barriers to successful reentry, and often folks are focused on different parts of the system. That segmentation is definitely something that's noticeable.

I imagine conditions of confinement issues are, in particular, quite distinct for women.

I think the things that are particularly distinct for women are issues of sexual abuse by guards and other staffers. That does happen to men sometimes, but it's much more likely to happen to women. I think, for all people in prison, there are issues around the way the system severs their connections to the community, but especially for mothers, and particularly mothers of minor children.

As an example, here in New York state, we had these two prisons, Bay View and Beacon. Bay View was in the city and Beacon was close, so when a mother was sent to one of those facilities, there was a better chance that she may be able to see her kids. After the hurricane, Bay View was shut down and hasn't reopened yet, and Beacon was shut as well. The next closest facility is Albion, which is so far that it might as well be Mars. For those kids it's devastating, and for the moms too.

So sexual abuse, parenthood and motherhood, and family maintenance and contact with families are all issues. We see that women prisoners have higher rates of substance abuse and mental illness than male prisoners, but that has a consistent relationship to the offenses that put them in prison in the first place. Especially for mental illness, incarceration and confinement generally makes it worse. The conditions of confinement are really, really tough, day in and day out. I think that is true for all folks in prison, but particularly relevant for mentally ill people.

The depiction of the psych ward on the show is pretty haunting. How effective, if at all, are those units in taking care of mentally ill prisoners?

I'm fortunate to say that I don't have that personal experience, but what people need to remember, on correctional health care, is that it's based on making sure the facilities can maintain order, and it's focused on making sure there are prisoners who can obey the rules. I'm not trying to paint every single individual who works in correctional health care, but there's a heavy reliance on medication and people being heavily medicated to make sure they can follow rules.

Is that mostly antipsychotics?

Yeah, lots of Seroquel and other heavy duty psych drugs. The question you have to ask is that they're coming home someday, and so what's going to happen when they leave and come home to the community?

On that point - a lot of women in the correctional system are likely to need social assistance once they get out. What kinds of problems do they run into in trying to secure that?

It gets harder and harder, and some of that is simply because of the disruption. One big issue is that anyone who is in the system gets taken out of it when they're incarcerated, and whether they can get back into any of those systems. Like housing — if you have a felony drug conviction, you're ineligible for housing assistance when you come home. There are literal policy barriers to things like housing assistance, and often things like educational assistance. You're actually barred from seeking educational assistance, instead of acknowledging that limited education is a reason that many end up in prison.

For a lot of women coming home, the single most important thing is being reunified with their children. So they come home, let's say, in New York City. Their kids are now in the foster-care system, so in order to do that they have to have housing to satisfy Child Protective Services. That's incredibly difficult, to get a place with enough bedrooms to satisfy CPS. That's important to what we do, to help women navigate those issues.

Piper finds the food in the SHU less than pleasing. (Netflix)
Piper finds the food in the SHU less than pleasing. (Netflix)

Piper on the show goes into solitary confinement, or the Special Housing Unit (SHU). Did that happen to you? What did that entail at Danbury?

I am really happy to say that I never went to the SHU, thank God, because it is a frightening place. I knew a fair number of women who did get sent to the SHU, never for long-term disciplinary segregation, but what happens typically is that you commit some kind of infraction. It's very arbitrary in terms of being locked up in the SHU initially. There's an administrative process, that can take up to a month to wind its way through the internal prison disciplinary process. And then they make a determination of whether your time in the SHU is sufficient and you can be reintegrated. It's like jail within jail.

There can be a disciplinary sentence, with years and years locked up inside, which is horrifying. Landing in the SHU can be extremely arbitrary, and it's not a process that extends out to the general courts. This is decided within the prison system, with little to no checks and balances.

Anything you wanted to touch on before we wrap up?

I think that women in prison are really emblematic of typical, low-level nonviolent offenders. That is the giant growth area in terms of our prison system over the last 30 years. We're putting people in prison who we never would have put in prison before. There's a staggering social cost when we talk about the families, but also it costs about $60,000 a year and that adds up really quickly. And we're talking about someone who is not this prominent threat to safety. It's just a policy.

It does seem like there's been some progress on moving away from incarceration toward probation and house arrest.

There has been, and there's been a lot of focus on reentry, but in terms of getting to a really substantial yield of results, in terms of reducing the prison population safely, you have to do sentencing reform, and courts reforms.

How much of a difference did the repeal of the Rockefeller drug laws in New York make on that front?

New York is actually a big success story in reducing the prison population without any negative impact on our crime rate. It's a big success story for smart-on-crime reforms. But there are others, and if you look around the country, a lot of policy reforms have had significant support from conservatives and republicans.

There was some conservative I heard describe prison guards as nothing but social workers with batons.

[Laughs] If only that were true. More like with tasers.

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