Losing your luggage is bothersome at the best of times. And a nightmare of cataclysmic proportions if it’s stuffed with over US$10,000 of drug money. This was 23-year-old Piper Kerman’s reality when, 23 years ago, the well-to-do college graduate from Boston found herself fallen in with an “impossibly cool” clique of lesbians, romantically attached to a woman who had landed her in the logistical throes of a heroin smuggling enterprise, accompanying said luggage from Chicago through Paris to Brussels on behalf of a West African drug kingpin.
As the saying goes, you couldn’t write this stuff. But Piper did, publishing the story of her resulting 13 months behind bars in a minimum-security women’s prison, and the time spent alongside the members of an eclectic inmate community, after it all caught up with her years later. Sound like a familiar story? It was the real-life story that launched one of Netflix’s most talked about productions.
“Of course it’s daunting to write a memoir about the stupidest, most immoral thing you’ve ever done and what the consequences of that were,” says Piper tells Collective Hub. “But that’s what the story was. You can’t hide it.”
Four years on from her momentary meltdown in Belgium when her luggage didn’t appear and long-settled into a crimeless existence as a freelance producer in New York after she left it – and her lesbian lover – behind her, Piper’s past caught up with her when two customs officers arrived at her West Village walk-up, saying she’d been indicted in federal Chicago court on charges of drug smuggling and money laundering. That was in 1998, and in 2004, a full 10 years after committing her offence, Piper was incarcerated.
“Much like what some folks have seen on the show, my then-boyfriend, now husband Larry [Smith, publisher of Smith Magazine] took me to surrender, to turn myself in to begin serving this sentence,” she says, remembering the day she walked into the penitentiary, clutching a foie gras sandwich (burrata cheese on screen).
“I was incredibly frightened and mystified, because it was very hard to get any kind of substantive information about what to expect,” she says. “Almost everything that was written that I could find about prison, about the experience of incarceration, had been written by and about men, so it was really hard to get any sense of what it would be like to be an incarcerated woman.”
Finding women ‘on the inside’ surprisingly kind – gifting her with luxuries like toothpaste on her arrival – Piper came to realise this might not be the experience she was anticipating.
“Even on that very first day in prison I recognised that the experience was not going to be what I expected, and that maybe what I was going to learn was not going to fit into all of our typical assumptions or expectations about prison or about prisoners.”
While she didn’t have any sexual encounters herself in prison that the series depicts, much of what happens in the series is true to Piper’s time – her job assignment as an electrician, hours spent shackled (and busting) on a ‘Con Air’ flight, a surprise reunion with her ex-girlfriend and the inclusion of a certain sassy, transgender inmate. The loss of personal freedoms are also accurately depicted.
“Someone tells you when to get up, when you can take a shower, if you can make a phone call, what time you have to eat… so much decision-making is taken away from you,” Piper explains. “So I think the experience of incarceration is all about this struggle to regain some sense of control over your own life – recognising the things that you are not in control of, which are many, and focusing on the things that you do have some kind of power over, and hopefully investing yourself in positive ways of getting control over your own life, rather than negative ways.”
Remarkably, Piper says, entrepreneurialism is one way women find empowerment on the inside.
“The informal economy that exists within the walls of every prison and jail is really important,” she stresses. “You need to have money in prison, you need to be able to buy things like shampoo and toothpaste… and also edible food,” she laughs. “So those economies are really fascinating, and there were lots of different examples of folks figuring out their own entrepreneurial way to survive. Whether it was doing things like hair or other kinds of grooming services, or laundry, there’s all kinds of different ways that people figure out, to hustle, basically.”
Piper now serves on the board of the Women’s Prison Association and teaches non-fiction writing to students in both a women’s and men’s prison, and while saying that if she could go back and persuade her younger self to do things differently, she would “in a heartbeat,” has embraced the way in which her time served rendered her an “evangelist for failure”.
“We are always so in love with success stories – telling them and trumpeting them – but I think we definitely learn far more from our failures than our successes because we ultimately succeed only when we’ve done all of the growth that failure forces us to do… The ability to say, ‘What are the choices and the mistakes that I made, and what can I do differently?’ is very important because not only do you adapt and change to do things differently, but you also recognise that sense of agency and sense of ownership of your own life. That you’re the author of your own life.”
Read the whole story in Collective Hub Issue 31, on stands from Monday 7 March.