Piper Kerman, author of Orange Is the New Black is back in prison, this time in Ohio, and this time as a teacher...and a role model. She is here as her terrific, poised self. She read at the Ohio Reformatory for Women this past Wednesday night, where I was guest of ORW teacher Drew Shifley. This is my account of my time there and her time there, reading and responding during an engaging, exciting Q and A.
As many know, I spent four months of my life, stretched across 18 years, in a
medium-maximum security prison in Lima, Ohio as a college professor and a volunteer creative writing workshop leader. Those years left me with an abiding interest in the idea and the fact of prison. And it made me intent on prison reform. Among historical U..S. sites, I have visited Alcatraz, Eastern Penitentiary, the Wyoming Territorial Prison, and the first U.S. jail in York, Maine. I have also visited Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin and the jail in Managua, Nicaragua. I have led literature and creative writing workshops in Grafton, Allen, and the now closed Lima Correctional, all in Ohio, and in La Modela Prison, outside Managua, Nicaragua.
But I had never been in a women's prison till Wednesday.
It was pretty similar to the majority of prisons I have been in, with a typical sallyport entry, so I was wearing no metal, stripped all my jewelry off and left it with my purse in the car, slid through the metal detector with just a plastic pouch of my I.D., pen and paper. Drew took me on a tour of the campus, a mix of old, heavy gray stone and newer buildings that looked like temporary WWII structures. I most enjoyed the beauty salon. At LCI, we had a barber shop where my former student and later Hollywood actor Bill McKenzie trained and learned the trade of barbering that paid his rent while he went out on auditions. At ORW, hair dos and manicures were going on, and I was offered one, but we had to get on to the show. It was nearing supper, so a lot of women were out on the grounds, and in the fact that they have to wear pants and shirts, the scene was not all that different from a men's prison.
Entering the chapel where the reading took place, Drew scored seats for us in the first row on the right. Piper's student were first row center, all sitting up tall and clutching their copies of Orange Is the New Black, all wearing the blue shirts with orange collars and blue pants. We waited half an hour, and then Piper walked in in a beautiful sleeveless green brocade-like dress and sat down right beside me. We shared a polite exchange, and then it really was showtime, led off by the Deputy Warden and then the Warden, Ronette Burkes. And you will forgive me if I continue with the couture for the evening--and this won't be the last time--but there was the first huge difference from a men's prison. Where the wardens I have known in men's prisons (even the one woman warden) always always wore suits, these two women were in a colorful orange dress for the warden, in a purple flowing top for the deputy warden, both in sandals. It was clear when they introduced the author that the two women are as deliriously happy to have Piper among them as her students are.
Piper began by reminding the audience of her background: time served in the Danbury Connecticut Federal Prison, in the Federal Transport System, and in the Federal Jail in Chicago. She would read three passages from her book, then take questions.
She began with "Schooling in the OG," which begins, "I had learned a lot since arriving in prison five months ago...." including a recipe for "Prison Cheesecake." (The recipe is here, but to get Piper's tips on avoiding mishaps, read the book.) The passage also treats the prison yoga class led by Yoga Janet and the five women who attended the sessions.
Second she read a passage about an afternoon when one of the prison teachers took her and a friend away in a truck, into a woods, and to the edge of a beautiful lake, described in awed detail. Piper the inmate put her hands in the cool water, then spent the afternoon painting picnic tables. Piper the author used it as an example of how the writers of Orange Is the New Black used an incident in the book and blew it up bigger than life in what became what I will call a beach scene at the end of one season. (No spoilers here.)
The third passage she read, from chapter 16, "Good Time" concerns Christmas in the prison and unlike John Prine's version, this one is about the women's activities and friendships during the season.
Then she opened the floor for questions. Without a recorder, I am left giving you the closest account of her words, so I am quoting indirectly but as accurately as possible.
Q: Where did the title come from?
A: Sometimes authors get a title after the work is written, or somewhere along the way, but this title was with me from the beginning. I wanted to use a play on that fashion statement we hear every season, "Gray is the new black" or "Turquoise is the new black," but I also wanted to signal that this is about women. The latest statistics note that there is a 650% increase in the incarceration of women (some say 800%) while there has been a 400% increase for men. I wanted to signal this problem.
Q: How do you feel about being in the same state as "Nora" now that you are in Ohio?
A (smiling, maybe ruefully explaining to the audience): My former girlfriend, "Alex" in the TV series, lives in Cincinnati, and her sister in Dayton. Well, you know, I had to take responsibility for what I had done and get over revenge ideas. And Cleary has a book now. I haven't read it all. And Cleary is Cleary. She is taking care of her aging mother, and that's a good thing. Her sister has gotten her degree and is doing good work.
Q: Are you still in touch with the women in the book?
A: Yes, some. Some from the beginning, like Yoga Janet and Pops. Some got in touch with me when the book came out. One woman that isn't in the book is from near where I am from, Massachusetts, and we have similar lives-- divorced parents and stuff-- and she read the book in draft and gave me good feedback.
Q: Is the chicken real?
A: The chicken was real, but it was a chipmunk. (Piper told the real story, then the account of seeing the story boards for the TV show. But again, no spoilers. Just: the chicken was a chipmunk.)
Q: Is the guy who supported you the whole time, the one in the book-- is he the one you are married to now?
A: Yes, Larry. Larry is the one I am married to. I was fortunate to have support while I was in and when I got out. I tell everyone, what you need most is a support system.
Q: Why Ohio? Why are you here?
A: I have to say there was a long response to this, but it wasn't an answer. It is clear that Piper is teaching at the Marion Men's Correctional one day a week and at Marysville one day a week, that she is here with her two children and Larry. At the end of the year, she is hoping to produce an anthology from the women's writing (ala Wally Lamb, though produced in condensed circumstances), but why Ohio, um, that wasn't clear. Or even murky.
Q: What was your motivation to write the book?
A: I knew right away that I would write a book. I have such a belief in the power of memoir to clarify and heal our experience-- it is why I am here, helping people to write their memoirs. But I think it takes time, too. One of the prison memoirs I have read was written too close to the experience. At least I think so. I'll have to see what the women in my group say. I think you need time to sort through it the experience.
Q: How do you feel about the TV series? How do you feel about the actress who plays you?
A: I think it is sort of an over the top version of my experience, as I demonstrated with that passage I read on the lake. I've been to sessions with Genji Cohen and the writers, and I have contributed. And on the set too. Once I saw a scene, and I said, "The woman would never poke the guard like that. Never," and they changed it. But one time, they just said, "Well, in our world this is going to happen." And if I am not there, they are going to do it however they want. And the actresses are amazing. When I read the character of Suzanne, I thought, oh, I don't think I like this, this insane character (Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren in the show). It seemed so disrespectful when I read the script. But then they got an actress ("Uzo" Aduba) to play the part with so much love and heart, and I love it. I really like Taylor. She is a lot taller than me.
Q: How would you compare teaching to writing?
A: This is the first time I have taught, and it is an amazing experience, but I have to say, I am very glad we have these books to read and discuss each week. We are reading nonfiction books from many points of view-- One that we read, Running the Books is from the point of view of a prison librarian. I have to say the one thing I have not been able to find is a good book from a warden's point of view (turning to the warden, who sputters, "In my retirement!")
Q: I read somewhere that you are working on prison reform. Are you, and if so, how?
A: I am, mostly with my writing and speaking. I think by sharing my experience, I am lending my voice to prison reform. We may be making some inroads. Six states have reduced their prison population by 23% in the past year. That's a start.
Q: Did you read Emily Nussbaum in this week's New Yorker, writing that the show tackles topics that aren't being aired anywhere else? For example, the topic of privatization.
A: Yes, I did. Emily Nussbaum has been a big fan of the show. And I like the way she has described it: "The series rejects realism, mining instead an outrageousness that verges on the vaudevillian." I was the one who got the theme of privatization into the show, so I am very pleased with that issue.
Warden Barnes and the Deputy Warden were sidling up, suggesting our "good time" was
|Photo by Shiffley|
I left prison last night, elated as I have often been when leaving the joint that good work was going on in a very tough place. But for the first time in decades, I also felt that maybe, just maybe the U.S. is going to make some headway in improving our particular version of prison. For a long time, it seemed you were considered a lunatic for even suggesting that the system was not fair, logical, economical, ethical, or beneficial to the society. But politicians on both sides of the aisle, church people, people of conscience and average people who haven't been in prison are beginning to see the need to improve. The amount of money we spend on such a very bad system that perpetuates itself is growing more and more appalling to us all. And the voice of Piper Kerman is one of the voices leading us up, out, on into better ways, better lives.