‘Orange Is the New Black’ author’s biggest mistake inspired prison activism and a hit TV show

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, with the Emmy television awards ceremony coming up Monday night, we take a look at one the most celebrated shows of the season.

RELATED LINKSIs Netflix the new TV? ‘Game of Thrones’ leads Emmy nominations; ‘Downton Abbey’ gets 6 Poll: What are your Emmy predictions? Hari is back with that.

ACTRESS: Look at you, blondie. What did you do?

ACTRESS: Aren’t you not supposed to ask that question? I read that you’re not supposed to ask that.

ACTRESS: You read that? What, you do studies for prisons?

HARI SREENIVASAN: “Orange Is the New Black,” Netflix’s most popular original show, follows the story of Piper Chapman, a white, middle-class woman sentenced to 15 months in prison for a past drug crime.

ACTRESS: I’m here to surrender.

ACTOR: Oh, OK then.

ACTRESS: Did he look surprised to you when I said that I was here to surrender? Didn’t he look surprised, like, what the hell is she doing here?

ACTOR: I didn’t notice.

ACTRESS: He look surprised to me.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The dark comedy is based on the real life of Piper Kerman. In 2004, she spent time in a minimum security prison in Danbury, Connecticut, and wrote “Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison” about her experience.

The book and series have been praised for bringing diverse and undertold stories about women behind bars to light. Kerman has since used the popularity of her story to advocate for prison reform. She testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on solitary confinement earlier this year.

PIPER KERMAN, Author, “Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison”: There are egregious examples of solitary confinement being used by prison officials to hide horrific, systemic sexual abuse under their watch.

The terrible threat of isolation makes women afraid to report abuse and serves as a powerful disincentive to ask for help or justice.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The series has already won Three Emmys this season and is nominated for nine more.

And Piper Kerman joins me now.

So, what’s it like to see a portion of your life turned into a TV show and nominated for a dozen Emmys?

PIPER KERMAN: Well, it’s interesting to see your biggest mistake and the consequences for that mistake turned into something that has such far-reaching impact.

And that is really thrilling. I think every writer probably fantasizes finding an audience and finding readers, because you would never finish a book otherwise, but it is really humbling and gratifying to see such an amazing adaptation by Jenji Kohan and to see the show reach so many people and to gain such acclaim.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Even after the success of the show, success of the book, what are the central ideas about a woman’s experience in prison that you think people still don’t get?

PIPER KERMAN: I think that people don’t necessarily recognize that women are a crystallizing example of people we have put in prison over the last 30 years that we never used to put in prison.

So people who are convicted of low-level nonviolent offenses, that is an accurate description of most women who are in prison or jail today. And, sometimes, you know, those women are sent to prison for really long times. You know, I was so fortunate to only go to prison for a year, for 13 months. But many of the women that I was doing time with were doing a lot more time, and, again, for nonviolent offenses.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now, you have testified regarding solitary confinement, but mental illness is something that has come through on a couple of the characters and storylines as well.

PIPER KERMAN: Yes. That’s a very accurate depiction on the show.

A huge percentage of prisoners and an even more significant percentage of female prisoners suffer from mental health problems and sometimes very acute mental illness. It’s a big part of what drives their involvement sometimes in crime. And the real issue is that confinement, i...

Aug 22, 2014, 10:19 PM
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