‘Orange Is the New Black’ as a Trojan Horse for Prison Reform

When Piper optioned her book to Jenji Kohan, the creator of Weeds, a number of people were asked to sign over something called “life rights.” In short: Some version of our lives could be depicted on the show, and we each agreed not to sue its creators if, for example, the character based on one of us was depicted as snobby, dopey, bitchy, overbearing, short, whatever. There’s a tremendous amount of trust that Piper had to put in Jenji.

If the show was unrealistic, salacious, or just plain bad, it could tarnish Piper’s book, a serious, accessible, and largely sex-free window into the women’s federal prison system. It was also a memoir written by a reluctant memoirist. Piper is a private person who told her story because she believed she could get a lot of people to pick up a book about prison who probably wouldn’t otherwise. Through this “Trojan horse” protagonist who might remind them of themselves, their daughter, or their niece, readers would get a peek into the diverse and complex world of women in prison: who they are, what happens when they get there, and what kind of world they’re dropped back into when they are released. The reaction to the book Orange Is the New Black gave Piper an opportunity to speak out on criminal justice reform—an opportunity very few prisoners have. The decision to give such a personal work over to a stranger—albeit an Emmy-winning one—looks easy now. Back then it wasn’t.

Larry Smith, husband of Piper Kerman, writing in Medium about the other true story behind “Orange Is The New Black”—his own life.

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Photo: PEN American Center, Flickr