Orange is the New Black is an award-winning, hard-hitting, Netflix show that mixes comedy and drama to suck viewers in and keep them enthralled. The story centres on Piper Chapman, whose cozy suburban life is disrupted when an old brush with crossing the law catches up to her. However, did you know that Chapman’s character is loosely based on real-life Piper Kerman? Or that Kerman was indeed indicted for drug smuggling and money laundering nearly a decade after her short foray into a life of crime?
Kerman’s stint in jail changed her in ways beyond a book deal and Netflix series ever could. She wanted to use her experience to create lasting change for people behind bars, and after her release, became an advocate for prisoner education.
In an interview with Jackson Free Press, Kerman made the impactful statement: “I was very lucky. I was much, much more fortunate than many of the women I served time with. I had a safe place to live. I had a job. I had access to health care. I had many, many things. I had a college education that no strip search could take away from me.”
She came to the realization that when she left prison after serving 13 of her 15-month sentence, she could go right back to a nice, secure life – a reality afforded to very few inmates. Making the decision to use her experience for good rather than to just push it to the back of her mind and move on, Kerman elected to fight what she calls “a lot of injustice in the criminal system.”
One of the ways she does this is to teach narrative non-fiction writing in two Ohio state prisons. She feels that storytelling, as she was able to do about her experience, returns humanity to the men and women behind bars, and brings attention to a system that is skewed economically, politically, and racially.
Recently, Kerman shared her story at an event and joined a panel to discuss prison education. During her time on stage, she pointed out that critical thinking skills and information processing helped her cope during her sentence.
Discussed on the panel was the fact that many inmates lack education before they are incarnated. This means during the arrest, proceedings, trial, sentencing, and prison stay, the offender is often confused about the legal terminology and lacks the self-confidence and communication skills to advocate for themselves.
Orange is the New Black is popular for a reason. The classic fish-out-of-water story never gets old. In this case, however, Kerman choose to use her experience to share with others what she saw first-hand – the positive impact of education on both sides of the bars. Kerman is strong woman spreading an important message, and that is worth more than all the viewers tuning in to catch Piper’s hijinks on Netflix.
Education is the key to lasting prison reform. If you don’t believe the studies, perhaps you can believe Kerman, whose education served her well before, during, and after her time in prison.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.