‘OITNB’ author shares story of incarceration, redemption

Katie Mest, Staff Writer, K.A.Mest@iup.edu

In February 2004, Piper Kerman self-surrendered into prison. Between then and her visit Tuesday to IUP, she wrote her memoir “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison,” which was adapted into a Netflix series.

She spoke in Fisher Auditorium for an event presented by STATIC (Student Activity Committee) and the Six O’Clock Series.

Kerman began by providing background information about herself and how she eventually ended up in a maximum-security prison in Chicago.

Kerman graduated in 1992 from Smith College in Massachusetts, which was “the first women’s institution in which [she] was held.”

After graduation, she met a woman who took her to exciting and exotic places. But in looking for adventure, she found herself in over her head. This woman was involved with drug dealing.

Kerman ended up carrying drug money from Chicago to Brussels. This was the act that led to two federal agents knocking on her door in 1998.

She self-surrendered to the Federal Corrections Institution in Danbury, Conn., more than 10 years after she committed the crime for a “mercifully short sentence” of 15 months.

While in prison, she encountered surprises, both good and bad.

“The last thing I expected on the first day of prison was kindness,” Kerman said to the audience.

Inmates came up to her offering essentials like toothpaste and shower shoes, things she would not be able to get from commissary right away.

Another inmate from her dorm, who went by the name of Star, wrote tags for the new arrivals in B Dorm. She wrote Kerman a tag with script lettering, a “powerful signal of welcome” to Kerman.

She spent 11 months in Danbury before she was moved to a maximum-security prison in Chicago.

She was released after a shortened sentence of 13 months. Then, she decided to write about her experiences.

“If I told the story the right way, in a pop-culture way, I could get someone to pick up a book about prison who wouldn’t have otherwise picked up a book about prison,” Kerman said.

She noted many statistics to the crowd that emphasized the problems with the justice system.

As a social justice advocate, Kerman wanted her readers to understand and do something about the 650 percent increase in female incarceration that took place in the last 30 to 40 years.

She also brought up the issue of race and how it affects those who are likely to be placed in prison.

“We know not all Americans are policed equally,” Kerman said. “A system that privileges some people’s safety and freedom over other people’s safety and freedom is not a justice system.”

Kerman ended the event with a meet-and-greet and a book signing.