Like a lot of people, I’ve been riveted by Netflix’s new fish-out-of-water series, “Orange is the New Black,” which centres around a yuppie who goes to a women’s prison for a 10-year-old drug offence.
When I found out it was based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, I wanted to know about the real-life yuppie who inspired the series. Kerman, like her Netflix counterpart, went to the minimum-security prison in Danbury, Conn.
But in the Netflix series, inmates starve her and pee in her cell; one inmate calls her “Dandelion” and aggressively tries to make the blonde Kerman her prison wife.
The inmates in Kerman’s memoir are a kinder, less hypersexualized bunch, and Kerman seems to adjust fairly quickly to life there despite her college education — or maybe because of it. Part of the reason she could ajust so well, she speculates, is that she went to Smith, an all-women’s college in Northampton, Mass.
At one point, a fellow inmate at Danbury named Joyce asks Kerman to colour her hair, and Kerman accidentally squirts a group of prisoners with water. They laugh instead of cursing her out, and she thinks maybe she’s “starting to fit in.”
Kerman came to prison from a life of relative privilege in her West Village apartment she shared with her fiancé Larry, but she thinks she was more prepared than some other inmates for “communal female living.” The same “feminine ethos” was present in both Smith and Danbury — including “empathetic camaraderie and bawdy humour on good days,” she writes.
“Single-sex living has certain constants,” she writes, “whether it’s upscale or down and dirty. At Smith College the pervasive obsession with food was expressed at candlelight dinners and at Friday afternoon faculty teas; in Danbury it was via microwave cooking and stolen food.”
In an interview with WNYC’s Leonard Lopate, Kerman spoke warmly of the “community of women” with whom she served time. The women pulled together to celebrate birthdays and provide one another with the toiletries that had to be bought from the prison commissary.
But she hints in her memoir that she’s only able to appreciate women’s prison in retrospect.
“I can just now step back far enough to appreciate its surreal singularity, but to be back with Larry in New York,” Kerman writes, “I would have walked across broken glass barefoot in a snowstorm, all the way home.”
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