Stories, Piper Kerman understands, draw people to a cause. Especially when they’re about characters — say, Alex, Taystee, Pennsatucky, Red or Crazy Eyes — we’ve met and loved (or hated) on TV.
And so when she appears Wednesday as a guest speaker for the National Council of Jewish Women of Greater Miami, the author of Orange is the New Black will tell her own compelling story — about being sentenced to 15 months in a women’s prison for delivering a suitcase of drug money. She’ll talk about her book and the buzzworthy Netflix series it spawned, which follows the daily lives of a multiethnic, multidimensional group of women in prison.
The telling has a purpose: To engage the audience in criminal justice reform.
“I think the most important way we understand the world is on a very simple narrative level, from the time we’re little kids being read to,” Kerman says. “Prisons, incarceration and having a justice system that keeps us safe but doesn’t have any consequences of its own — stories make it all more comprehensible. When I decided to write the book I believed talking about my own story would put this issue — criminal justice — into a context that would be accessible to a broad range of people.”
Kerman’s advocacy for women in prison makes her a fitting speaker for this year’s NCJW “Woman of Valor” event. Each year, the organization honors a local woman who has made a difference in the community. This year’s recipient is Constance Collins, founder and executive director of Lotus House, a Miami shelter for homeless women and children.
Collins, who started Lotus House eight years ago, values the award most because it’s “meaningful for our shelter as a way for others to understand how challenging it is to break the cycle of homelessness.”
“When I think of women of valor, I think about women who have survived the unimaginable, who are perservering through homelessness to build new lives at this shelter. I’m inspired every day — not by what I do but what they do. This cycle causes women to be in the system, from the hospital to the shelter to the streets to jail and around again. They don’t have access to the support system they need to break the cycle. So it’s an opportunity to raise awareness.”
Karen Warner, vice president of advocacy for the organization — one of the oldest women’s nonprofits in the country — sees a connection between Collins’ work and the lives of the women Kerman describes in her memoir, some of whom come from abusive homes and leave prison only to face homelessness.
“The NCJW seeks to bring attention and advocacy on behalf of women who don’t have a voice,” she says. “Constance Collins dedicated her life to protecting women who have been abused and excluded from opportunities — not unlike the women in Piper’s memoir.”
Kerman, 44, is conscious of the fact that she has found herself rich in terms of opportunity. As a Smith College graduate from a loving and supportive family with a loving and supportive fiance — unlike the more problematic characters depicted on the TV series — she had a job waiting for her upon her release. A blond white-collar criminal, she got a book deal. An attractive young actress, Taylor Schilling, is firmly lodged in the public’s mind as her TV alter ego.
Even the show’s creator, Jenji Kohan, told NPR she had to use the character of Piper as a “Trojan horse” to sell a series full of compelling stories about minorities, older women and criminals. Even in fiction, such women rarely get a voice.
“Too often these stories aren’t told,” Kerman says. “Eighty percent of the women in prison are too poor to afford a lawyer. They’re from the poorest and most vulnerable communities in this country.”
Kerman, who supports an end to mandatory minimums and changes to drug policies that send nonviolent offenders to prison, is grateful that the TV series shines a bigger spotlight on the subject. The writers did embellish many storylines for the screen — though one of the most unlikely twists, Piper ending up in the same prison as the former lover who introduced her to the drug trade, actually happened — but both the book and the show reflect a profound attention to the inequities, heartbreak and danger women in prison face.
“When we were getting started shooting the first season, Jenji said, ‘I love your book, but there’s just not that much conflict in it,’ ” Kerman says. “Now I’ve been through the process, and I understand. Television relies on external conflict. A book involves introspection, and incarceration involves internal conflict.”
Kerman doesn’t rule out writing more on the criminal justice system and the women caught up in it, but she sees Orange is the New Black as a solid first step toward making readers — and perhaps the audience at the Women of Valor event — stop and think.
“There was one simple reason to write the book — a hope that people would start to think differently about how it is in prison and what happens to the people there. People who fill prisons are human beings who have made terrible mistakes and are flawed. ... When I talk about the book and the show and some of the issues related to them, I hope people can connect them back to people where they live. There’s a jail in every community in this country. We’re not talking big abstractions here.
“In the course of my work I met a warden of a very large women’s prison who told me, ‘We all love this show so much. We have a Crazy Eyes here, and a Pennsatucky.’ ... These characters are archetypes for struggles that are happening in every jail and prison out there.”