Soon after graduating from Smith College in 1992, Piper Kerman got mixed up in a drug trafficking and money laundering operation. She smuggled drug money from Chicago to Brussels, Belgium in 1993. After that incident, Kerman moved to San Francisco to start a new life. In 1998, she was brought up on charges related to her involvement in the drug operation. Kerman was later sentenced to 15 months in prison. Her experiences behind bars inspired the 2010 best-selling memoir Orange Is the New Black, which was later turned into an Emmy Award-winning TV series of the same name.
Born on September 28, 1969, in Boston, Massachusetts, author and prison reform activist Piper Kerman is best known for her 2010 memoir Orange Is the New Black. She grew up in an affluent family and attended Smith College, a highly regarded all-female institution, where she studied theater. After graduating in 1992, Kerman remained in her college’s town of Northampton, Massachusetts. She worked as a waitress for a time.
Kerman’s life took a dramatic turn when she got involved with “Nora,” a woman who was engaged in a drug trafficking operation for a West African drug king named “Alaji,” according to her memoir. (Nora revealed herself to be Catherine Cleary Wolters after Kerman’s book was published.) At first, she tagged along with her girlfriend on some of her trips abroad. Kerman eventually agreed to transport a suitcase loaded with ill-gotten cash to Europe. When she returned home to the United States, she decided to start a new life. She moved to San Francisco where she eventually became a producer.
Long Road to Prison
By 1998, Kerman had moved on with her life, falling in love with editor Larry Smith and settling in New York City. Her past, however, caught up with her that year. Two custom agents visited her at her Greenwich Village apartment to inform her that she had been indicted on drug conspiracy and money laundering charges by a Chicago court. Her old girlfriend had been arrested and had given the names of her associates, including Kerman, to the authorities.
With the help of her legal counsel, Kerman worked a deal to plead guilty to money laundering in exchange for a lesser sentence. Kerman had to wait five years before her actual sentencing date, however. The U.S. government spent years trying to get the drug operation’s ringleader extradited. When all of those efforts failed, the case against Kerman went forward. On December 8, 2003, Kerman told a judge at her sentencing hearing that “More than a decade ago I made bad decisions, on both a practical and moral level. . . . I am prepared to face the consequences of my actions,” according to her memoir. She was given 15 months in prison.
‘Orange Is the New Black’
In February 2004, Kerman surrendered herself at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut. She spent time in three different prisons, including a stint in a Chicago facility so that she could testify against another member of the drug ring. While behind bars, Kerman came to realize how flawed the criminal justice system was.
After her release from prison in 2005, Kerman became an advocate for prison reform. She also shared her own experiences in her 2010 memoir Orange Is the New Black. As she told Alternet, “My goal in writing the book was quite simple. It was for people to recognize the millions and millions of people in our prisons and jails as human beings who are complicated and interesting and compelling and worthy of recognition as human beings.” Her prison chronicles proved to be a huge hit with readers.
In 2013, Kerman’s memoir made the leap to the small screen. Jenji Kohan created the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, which featured Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman, a fictionalized version of Kerman. As she explained to the Boston Globe, Kerman recognizes that Schilling’s character is very different from her. “I think the character is a really interesting one. She makes all kinds of mistakes that I didn’t make. I made plenty of mistakes, but they were different.” Kerman has served as an executive consultant on the series, which has won several Emmy Awards. Other stars in the series include Uzo Aduba, Kate Mulgrew, Laverne Cox, Taryn Manning and Natasha Lyonne.
Kerman also serves as a communications consultant for Spitfire Strategies, which works nonprofit and public interest organizations. She is a board member of the Women’s Prison Association and received the 2014 Justice Trailblazer Award from the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College.
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