Not only has Piper Kerman’s best-selling memoir about her 13 months spent in a women’s prison been adapted into an Emmy-nominated TV series, it has also created a platform for her to spread her advocacy of criminal justice reform. As the series airs on Go by OSN, Time Out catches up with the writer to discuss the latest season and her current projects.
Tell us about your involvement with the TV adaptation.
I am a consultant to the show, which basically means I answer questions from producer Jenji Kohan and the writers’ room as they devise the season. I read scripts and offer feedback to help make Litchfield a realistic federal women’s prison. Sometimes I get a question I can’t answer, and so I say, ‘Well, I’ve never robbed a bank, but I know someone who has…’
Why do you think your story has translated so well to the small screen?
I think that Jenji made really smart creative choices in the adaptation – a wide array of compelling female protagonists, and of course prison has a lot of inherent conflict. And the show reveals a world behind bars that is very intentionally hidden from public view, so naturally we are fascinated.
Your book is a bestseller, and the TV show received 12 Emmy nominations. Did you ever expect it would reach so many people?
I am stunned by the way audiences have responded, and so grateful. When I was sitting on Con Air in shackles I could not have imagined this – though that was a pretty weird experience, too. I think that the book and the show help make real this abstract fact – the United States imprisons more of its people than any country in the world, the most prisoners in human history. And that’s why people care, because there’s a much bigger story going on.
You’ve been deeply involved in criminal justice reform in the US. Did that feel like a natural step after your time in prison? And do you think the show is helping to bring it more into public consciousness?
I don’t think I could have walked away from the senseless waste of taxpayer dollars and human potential that I saw in prison – we have created human warehouses with an enormous percentage of non-violent offenders, and they don’t make us safer. I couldn’t forget the extreme inequality that plays out in the criminal justice system every day – different Americans will be policed differently, prosecuted differently and sentenced differently. I hope that seeing these stories in new ways makes a difference in policy. I am optimistic.
You’ve taken a negative experience and turned it into a positive outlet. Any advice for others dealing with adversity?
I think we learn a lot more from our failures than our successes. So it’s important not to be in denial when we screw up – you take responsibility, you try to fix what you’ve done, you try to learn to be better.
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