The memoir Orange Is The New Black: My Year In A Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman follows her seven-year long experience with the federal correctional system, chronicling her own experience while simultaneously exposing some of the greatest flaws and oversights of the system.
When federal agents knocked on her door with an indictment in hand, Piper Kerman […] was forced to reckon with the consequences of her very brief, very careless dalliance in the world of drug trafficking.
Following a plea deal for her 10-year-old crime, Piper spent a year in the infamous women’s correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut, which she found to be no “Club Fed.” In Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, Piper takes readers into B-Dorm, a community of colorful, eccentric, vividly drawn women. Their stories raise issues of friendship and family, mental illness, the odd cliques and codes of behavior, the role of religion, the uneasy relationship between prisoner and jailor, and the almost complete lack of guidance for life after prison.
The Netflix Original remains loosely based on the memoir, borrowing mostly the book title and setting from the book while taking extreme liberties with the plot line and characters. The memoir itself follows only Piper’s experiences; therefore, most of the back-stories and minor characters in the show were created for the show. Many characters of the series are purely fictional, though some are adapted from people Kerman actually met while in prison. For example, although the show writers created the back-story for Sophia (played by transgender actress Laverne Cox, and named Vanessa in the book), there was a trans woman living in the cubicle beside Kerman in prison.
MAJOR DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE BOOK AND THE SHOW
1. Alex Vause (played by Laura Prepon) in the show is named Nora in the book and Cathering Cleary Wolters in real life, and they were NOT in prison together.
Catherine Cleary Wolters is the real-life inspiration for the character Alex Vause, who is actually 10 years older than Piper.
According to an interview with Wolters, she and Kerman were only ever in the same prison facility for five weeks during a brief stretch in a Chicago detention center in 2005. They were both in town to testify against a co-conspirator in their case, and their environment and mental conditions were not well suited to rekindling lost love. Shackled together on the Con Air flight to the facility, Wolters says Kerman “refused to even speak to her”.
“We were ghosts of the humans we had once been, milling about amongst hundreds of other human ghosts, shackled and chained, prodded through transport centers at gunpoint, moved through holding facilities,”
One of the first season’s major plot points concerns whether or not Alex Vause really snitched on Chapman. The state of the pair’s romance often hinges on whether Chapman thinks Vause was the informant who “named” her. In reality, Wolters says, everyone involved in the case talked.
“They had picked the first round of us up two years prior to Piper’s somewhat congenial visit from the feds,” Wolters says of the ring’s undoing. “So, yes, I named her, she named me, and we all named each other. Fact was, we all thought we were doing the right thing, confessing, getting protection, and saving ourselves from certain death at the hands of a Nigerian drug lord who we knew would soon find we had all been arrested.”
2. Piper spent five years negotiating a plea deal before going to prison.
In truth, Piper waited 5 years after being indicted to get sentenced.
The real Piper smuggled $10,000 from Chicago to Brussels, Belgium, during her time with Nora, and 10 years later, the law caught up with her. In a 2010 interview with NPR, Kerman said that while she had long harbored resentment toward Nora, during her time in prison, she accepted full responsibility for the drug-ring days. She said, “It was a reckless and selfish time in my life.”
3. Lesbian activity is not allowed.
Upon arrival in Danbury, I was struck by the fact that there did not seem to be any lesbian activity… A lot of the romantic relationships I observed were more like schoolgirl crushes, and it was rare for a couple to last more than a month or two.
If Piper engaged in any sexual activities or relationships during her stay, it isn’t included in the book.
4. Piper did NOT own an artisanal bath product business.
During the time leading up to her surrender, Piper Kerman was a creative director for the web entities of large corporations prior to being sent to prison.
I worked hard at forgetting what loomed ahead, pouring my energies into working as a creative director for Web companies… I needed money to pay my huge ongoing legal fees, so I worked with the clients my hipster colleagues found unsexy and unpalatable — big telecom, big petrochemicals, and big shadowy holding companies.
5. Piper was NOT starved out by the prison cook, did NOT start a prison panty business called felonious spunk, and did NOT get branded with a swastika.
True, racial cliques group together in Kerman’s memoir. But once you arrive, she explains, she was immediately accepted and taken care of. Here, a passage describing Piper’s first few days:
I avoided eye contact. Nonetheless women periodically accosted me: “You’re new? How are you doing, honey? Are you okay?” Most of them were white. This was a tribal ritual that I would see play out hundered of times in the future. When a new person arrived, their tribe — white, black, Latino, or the few and far between ‘others’ — would immediately make note of their situation, get them settled, and steer them through their arrival… The other white women brought me 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…
Piper may have insulted (Red) Pop’s food, however Pop didn’t punish her for it as she did in the show. Pop may have fixed “a ferocious glare,” but her actions toward Piper are far less harsh. Pop’s advice to Piper:
Listen, honey, I know you just got here, so I know that you don’t understand what’s what. I’m gonna tell you this once. There’s something here called “inciting a riot,” and that kind of shit you’re talking about… you can get in big trouble for that… so take a tip from me, and watch what you say.
Piper and Pop eventually get along and create a strong bond. The book, in fact, is dedicated to her (as well as her parents and Larry).
6. Piper did NOT beat Pennsatucky to a pulp and was NOT sent to the SHU.
In real life, Kerman never had solitary confinement. She did, however, testify before the Senate earlier this year on behalf of eliminating the use of solitary as punishment.
7. Piper did NOT get furlough.
A big season two plot point for Piper is how she gets furlough when she finds out her grandmother is dying. In the show, she misses her death but still gets to head home for a couple of days. In real life, Kerman also lost her grandmother but didn’t get furlough or to say goodbye.
8. Piper did NOT break up with Larry and pursue a lesbian relationship while in prison.
In the show, Larry writes an article in the New York Times about her and does a radio interview that drives a wedge between them. In contrast, in the book, Larry’s “Modern Love” essay brings them closer together.
The real Larry Smith, a writer with whom the real Kerman is still involved, was much more supportive and successful in the memoir than in the show. The real Larry’s Modern Love piece was published on March 25, 2010, with the title “A Life to Live, This Side of the Bars.”
“Apparently, orange was the new black” (Kerman, 71).
Despite the differences between the book and the show, both remain fascinatingly captivating descriptions of the prison industry and have helped to raise awareness of criminal justice issues within the United States.
“In the United States mandatory minimum sentencing was a critical part of the late-twentieth-century “War on Drugs.” Guidelines established by Congress in the 1980s required federal judges to impose set sentences for drug crimes, regardless of the specific circumstances of a case, and without discretion to evaluate the person being sentenced. The federal laws have been widely duplicated by state legislatures. The length of the sentences completely freaked me out: ten, twelve, twenty years. Mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses are the primary reason that the U.S. prison population has ballooned since the 1980s to over 2.5 million people, a nearly 300 percent increase. We now lock up one out of every hundred adults, far more than any other country in the world.” (Kerman, 23).
“Every year guards at Danbury and other womens prisons around the country are caught sexually abusing prisoners.” (Kerman, 130).
“…in the federal system alone (a fraction of U.S. prison population), there were over 90,000 prisoners locked up for drug offenses, compared with about 40,000 for violent crimes. A federal prisoner costs at least $30,000 a year to incarcerate, and females actually cost more.” (Kerman, 138).
Prison is quite literally a ghetto in the most classic sense of the word, a place where the U.S. government puts not only the dangerous but also the inconvenient – people who are mentally ill, people who are addicts, people who are poor and uneducated and unskilled. (Kerman, 200).
The series has earned four Emmys, four SAG Awards and a Peabody, and have raised public awareness around the problems of mass incarceration and its disproportionate effects on communities of color.
Season 5 of Orange Is The New Black will premiere on Netflix on Friday, June 9th.