Crime and Punishment

An upper crust New Englander goes to prison.

Interview by Amanda Robb
Photograph: Photo: Peter Ardito. Illustration: Quickhoney

Piper Kerman is a blue-eyed patrician with an elite education. But she is also a convicted felon who spent 13 months in prison in 2004 after pleading guilty to a 10-year-old drug-related crime. She chronicles the time she spent behind bars in Orange is the New Black (Spiegel & Grau).

Q Why did a smart woman like you do a dumb thing like traffic drugs?
A What I actually did was pick up wire transfers for a friend who smuggled drugs. I also carried a suitcase filled with cash from Chicago to Brussels. I was 23 years old; it never occurred to me that I would be indicted five years later, when I was working as a film editor, or that the case would drag on for years.

Q Name the biggest prison shocker.
A The prisoners. I expected them to be scary, but many were amazingly kind. They form welcome committees for new inmates. They give you stamps, toilet paper, shower shoes. I shouldn’t have been surprised. I was in minimum security with other nonviolent inmates.

Q You write that women’s prison is like women’s college. Is that because a student and a prisoner each cost many thousands of dollars?
A No, I mean that when you put women together in a confined space things happen. There’s a lot of gossip. There are very intense friendships—and disagreements.

Q Were there many romantic relationships between inmates?
A I never saw anyone have sex. Inmates work all day (I was trained as an electrician). After work, a lot of the women keep working: Some give pedicures, some sew. You pay each other with commissary credit.

Q Prison doesn’t sound so bad . . .
A Being separated from the ones you love is hell. But I learned that I have stores of resilience and grace. It was a ridiculously difficult, selfish way to discover that about myself. But I’m grateful for the knowledge.

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