It’s a premise almost too fantastic to be factual: girl meets girl and enters into a romantic relationship, only to find out her partner is a heroin-dealing West African kingpin. Committed to their relationship, she launders money for the drug operation; five years later, indicted and charged for money laundering and drug trafficking, she pleads guilty; all that she’s left with is herself and her prison term.
As incredible as it sounds, for fans of long-running Netflix show “Orange Is the New Black,” this description will seem all too familiar. The most-watched show on the video streaming platform, “Orange Is the New Black” presents itself as a comedic drama based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name.
While Kerman’s memoir is exceptional in itself, the reception of the book’s television adaptation has received critical acclaim and reception that parallels and even surpasses its original. In its first season alone, the show was nominated for 12 Primetime Emmy Awards and ended up winning three: the awards for Outstanding Cast in a Comedy Series, Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series and Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Comedy Series.
As its characters and plot progressed, so too did critical and public acceptance for the often controversial themes of the show and its characters. In fact, “Orange Is the New Black” is the sole series thus far to score nominations in both the comedy and drama categories of the Primetime Emmy Awards, in addition to other accolades.
And it isn’t just Hollywood that can’t get enough of the Kerman-inspired prison show. Vassar students admit their own love for the now-famous characters. As Robin Carleto ’19 explained, thinking about Kermon’s impending appearance, “It’s the best thing Vassar has done. I haven’t read all of the book, but I like the show because it blends comedy and drama perfectly to reflect real-life situations. It has an outstanding cast who portray a lot of different races, beliefs, and perspectives. In all honesty, I love it.”
Though media adapted for television may perpetuate and exaggerate factual circumstances to elicit more extensive exposure, in the case of Piper Kerman and Piper Chapman’s situations, not much else differs. Kerman’s book and her experiences themselves remain to be the most invaluable asset to the show. Kerman was hired as an on-set consultant for the show.
Kerman’s descriptions of the various relationships and human interactions she encountered during her reduced 13-month prison sentence as translated on screen invoke a sense of solidarity that doubtless is at the source of the show’s success.
While there has been careful curation to ensure Kerman’s experiences beneficially impact and inspire the show’s core direction, there remains one fundamental difference between Kerman and her on-screen representation: Kerman is no longer incarcerated. Instead, following her two-month early release from FCI Danbury, a minimum-security prison, Kerman has exerted herself immensely in as many public forums as possible.
Kerman is a board member of the Women’s Prison Association (WPA), which provides preventative services for at-risk women, works to create alternatives to incarceration, advocates against practices like shackling during childbirth and offers programs to aid re-entry into society. Though the WPA was founded in 1845, it didn’t expand its practice until the late 1990s.
At the WPA, Kerman frequently speaks to students regarding gender and women’s studies, sociology, law, criminology and prison reform. In addition, Kerman teaches writing to current inmates through the Association. Her time within the reformational system has served to create first-hand experience which is beneficial in her role empathizing and reaching inmates.
Kerman often identifies various ways that incarceration practices could be improved. She analyzes the problematic facets of the criminal justice system and offers strategies for reducing recidivism. It is these observations coupled with her personal experience that allows Kerman to speak on such an informed and expressive place.
Currently, Kerman advances these important and incisive constructive-criticisms at public forums throughout the country. And as this year’s Alex Krieger Memorial Lecturer, it appears Kerman will have the opportunity to bring these ideas to Vassar’s intellectual community. The presentation, which will include a question and answer session and book signing following the event, is free and open to the public.
Though Kerman has done extensive research on the criminal justice system, it is her personal experience which serves as a foundation for her message. In particular, Kerman’s experience in prison gave her a unique understanding of the resiliency of her fellow inmates. Through her lecture circuit and her role as a consultant on the adapted television series, “Orange is the New Black,” Kerman hopes to promote a genuine portrayal of the prison system to the public, as she witnessed it.
At first glance, it would seem rather odd that a presentation of such gravity and sobriety would be chosen as the subject matter of an annual lecture series dedicated to the incorporation of humor. The Alex Krieger ’95 Memorial Lecture, given in memory of Vassar student Alex Krieger, commemorates Krieger’s massive interest in the incorporation of humor as a primary element into distinguished American writing. That said, what could be so funny about going to prison on drug trafficking and money laundering charges?
That’s where the celebrated comedic aspect of “Orange Is the New Black” comes in. As fans of both Kerman’s work and the show will quickly identify, comedy and humor in the face of adversity is one of the key tropes of the show.
Alissa Bringas ’18 was ecstatic regarding Kerman’s upcoming arrival and presentation, declaring, “Oh yeah, I love that show. Piper isn’t really my favorite character, but she’s definitely someone that I really enjoy watching. When I saw the poster advertising the event, I actually was like, ‘Wow! That’s one of the few people I actually recognize.’”
For as many fans of Piper Chapman and “Orange Is the New Black” that posit their love for the show on a daily basis, there are even more advocates and proponents of Piper Kerman and her work in activism. As Tamar Ballard ’19 expresses, “I’ve never watched ‘Orange Is the New Black,’ but I can still appreciate all the work Piper Kerman has done for prison reform and women in society. As someone interested in Urban and Africana studies, it’s always refreshing to see individuals from all walks of life and life’s experiences validly contribute to societal issues, especially when it’s done in such a way that improvement can only occur as a result of their intervention.”
Fellow class member Dimaris Santos-Bonilla ’19 agrees: “There seem to be so many issues plaguing humanity, and not even just on a North American scale. While I wouldn’t say all cultural and societal issues are replicated identically across continents, the fact that there are certain issues that immutably affect different countries and cultures despite decades of investigation and reform insinuate a question of the efficacy of certain practices. It’s a kind of ‘Through the Looking-Glass’ effect; most of us have never been to prison, so how can we possibly expect to understand it?”
Only through the communication and expertise of individuals like Piper Kerman, individuals who have had these experiences, can we even attempt to comprehend these kinds of events. Likewise, it is only by the expression of Piper Kerman and those with mindsets and understanding like her that we can even hope to alleviate or even ameliorate these societal scourges.”
In any case, while the context of the show may seem stark and immutable to average individual, Kerman’s true ability in describing and extending the circumstances of each person’s life story through her work has understandably created a cultural phenomenon. As Kerman so eloquently communicates, we as individuals are inherently intelligent, emotional, social and resilient and no degree of separation or obstruction could ever change this fact.