“We have the biggest prison population in the world. We have the biggest prison population in human history here in the United States.… The fastest-growing segment of our criminal justice system and that prison population has been women. Female incarceration has risen by 800 percent in this country… I believe that we’ve reached a point in this country where most people are questioning whether we have made the best choices.”
Piper Kerman’s bestselling memoir Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison chronicles her “crucible experience”—the 13 months she spent in the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut after a brief involvement with drug trafficking sent her to prison on money laundering charges. In her compelling, moving, and deeply funny book, Kerman explores the experience of incarceration and the lives of the women she met in prison: their friendships and families, mental illnesses and substance abuse issues, cliques and codes of behavior.
What struck her the most about her experience, Kerman says, is the power of women’s communities: “the incredible ability of women to step up for each other, and to be resilient and to share their resiliency with other people.” Kerman’s memoir also raises provocative questions about the state of criminal justice in America, and how incarceration affects individuals and communities—and how it disproportionately impacts people of color. Dave Eggers calls Orange is the New Black “a serious and bighearted book that depicts life in a women’s prison with great detail and—crucially—with empathy and respect for Piper Kerman’s fellow prisoners, most of whom did not and do not have her advantages and options…. Expert reporting and humane, clear-eyed storytelling.”
“I loved this book, to a depth and degree that caught me by surprise. What I did not expect from this memoir was the affection, compassion, and even reverence that Piper Kerman demonstrates for all the women she encountered while she was locked away in jail. That was the surprising twist: that behind the bars of women’s prisons grow extraordinary friendships, ad hoc families, and delicate communities. In the end, this book is not just a tale of prisons, drugs, crime, or justice; it is, simply put, a beautifully told story about how incredible women can be, and I will never forget it.”
—Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love
Jenji Kohan adapted Kerman’s memoir into the groundbreaking Netflix original series, which has been credited with radically increasing the public’s awareness about mass incarceration and the growing female prison population. Spanning seven seasons, The Washington Post called it “the best TV show about prison ever made.” Time too lauded the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning show for “the stunningly matter-of-fact way it uses the prison to create one of TV’s most racially and sexually diverse–and as important, complex–dramas [and] contrasts the power and class dynamics inside the prison with those outside the prison.” From Where She Stands, a podcast hosted by Kerman, connected the storylines from Orange Is the New Black with the stories of real women whose lives have been impacted by prison, exploring issues of identity, connection and hope.
Since her release, Kerman has worked tirelessly to promote the cause of prison and criminal justice reform. She works with nonprofits, philanthropies, and other organizations working in the public interest and serves on the board of directors of the Women’s Prison Association and the advisory boards of the PEN America Writing For Justice Fellowship, InsideOUT Writers, Healing Broken Circles, and JustLeadershipUSA. She has been called as a witness by the US Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights to testify on solitary confinement and women prisoners, by the US Senate Governmental Affairs and Homeland Security Committee to testify about the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and by the House Judiciary Committee on women and girls in the criminal justice system.
Kerman has spoken at the White House on re-entry and employment as a Champion of Change, as well as on the importance of the arts in prisons and the unique challenges faced by women in the criminal justice system. In 2014 she was awarded the Justice Trailblazer Award from John Jay College’s Center on Media, Crime & Justice and the Constitutional Commentary Award from the Constitution Project; the Equal Justice Initiative recognized her as a Champion of Justice in 2015.
Kerman lectures nationwide to audiences ranging from campuses, to churches, to libraries, as well as groups interested in criminal justice reform including the International Association of Women Judges, the American Correctional Association’s Disproportionate Minority Confinement Task Force, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the National Criminal Justice Association, federal probation officers, public defenders, justice reform advocates and volunteers, and formerly and currently incarcerated people. She speaks about learning from mistakes, the power of women’s communities, the need for prison reform and support for people after incarceration, her life and experiences, and the TV series.
Kerman is a graduate of Smith College and has taught writing to incarcerated persons in state prisons. She lives in the Bay Area with her family and is working on two new books related to social justice and mass incarceration.here.