Orange Is the New Black was the most surprising, strangest TV package of 2013. Surprising because this dark comedy has never actually been broadcast: it’s only available on the internet.
More surprising still, it’s about a middle-class woman struggling to survive in a brutal US correctional facility. Perhaps the most astonishing thing of all, though, is that it’s based on a true story.
Wealthy and well educated, Piper Kerman is not the sort of person you expect to be done for drug trafficking and money laundering. When federal agents banged on the door of her smart New York apartment, it came as even more of a shock to her devoted boyfriend. He had no idea about her brief dalliance with crime five years earlier, or the lesbian ex-lover who got the better of her principles.
In 2004, Kerman – then aged 34 – dutifully turned herself into a minimum-security prison in Connecticut to begin her 15-month sentence, where another shock was in store.
“Women began to approach me and I was frightened. Terrified. Yet they were saying things like: ‘Do you need some toothpaste, Kerman? Do you need shower shoes so you don’t get that horrible fungus in the bathroom? Do you need a cup of instant coffee because you are quaking in your boots?’
“They told me: ‘Today is a really bad day but tomorrow will be a tiny bit better.’ The last thing I expected on my first day in prison was to experience kindness at the hands of other prisoners.”
Like most people, Kerman – who worked as a TV producer – had previously possessed very little idea of what went on behind bars, beyond the vague notion that jail was “uncontrollably violent”.
“In the United States what happens behind prison walls is hidden from public view – and I would say very intentionally hidden from the public view.”
So upon her release she decided to write a memoir. “I hoped that by writing about my own experience that people might think differently about who is in prison, and what really happens to them.”
She found an avid reader in Jenji Kohan, creator of Weeds, a comic saga about a reluctant cannabis dealer that ran for eight series. Kohan convinced Kerman that her memoir would make brilliant TV.
Kohan didn’t disappoint. Rarely, if ever, has a mainstream show boasted such a diverse array of nuanced female characters, including one of the first transsexual characters on US television to be played by a real transsexual. Equally fascinating is the glimpse of life inside: the unspoken hierarchies, the tribes, the tug-of-war between inmates and guards.
In the very first episode Piper is starved out after inadvertently insulting the cook – something the real Piper also did. “It didn’t occur to me, quite frankly, that anyone would take pride in their prison job. She really set me straight! There were many times during that year in prison when I went, ‘You could not make this s**t up.’”
“I hope that people connect the dots: these characters are grounded in real people who are living in prisons right now. If you think that these characters’ lives are interesting and complicated and have value, then it’s important to remember that that’s true for all the people who are filling up our jails.”