Is Orange Is the New Black a True Story?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Orange Is The New Black" by Piper Kerman. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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Is Orange Is the New Black a true story? What is the real story of Piper Kerman?

Many fans of the hit Netflix show wonder: is Orange Is the New Black a true story? Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name is in fact a true story, and she discusses her time in prison as well as systemic issues.

So is Orange Is the New Black a true story? Read to find out more.

Orange Is the New Black: A True Story

So is Orange is the New Black a true story? Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison is a memoir by Piper Kerman, detailing her experiences as an inmate at a federal women’s prison, where she served for just over a year. Piper was a privileged, well-educated white woman from an upper-middle-class family. Shortly after graduating college in the early 1990s, Piper became involved with her girlfriend Nora Jansen’s international drug smuggling operation. Despite the glamour of her jet-setting lifestyle, however, Piper had growing apprehensions about what she was doing. She knew that Nora was untrustworthy, dangerous, and fully willing to exploit her for her own advantage. Nora thought little of putting Piper at great legal and physical risk if it meant more profit for the drug smuggling operation. Ultimately, Piper ended her relationship with Nora and cut off all ties with her. After reading Piper’s tale of her time in a women’s prison, many people asked “Is Orange is the New Black a True Story?” The answer is yes, and Piper details events from her arrest to her release.

Indictment and Plea

Piper began a more conventional, risk-free life, glad to have put her criminal past behind her. She landed a job as a television producer and editor, working primarily on infomercials and met and fell in love with a man named Larry. He was not the risk-seeking, hip, bohemian type she had traditionally been attracted to, but he was good-hearted, kind, and loved her intensely—and Piper found, this was all she ever wanted. The Orange is the New Black true story also details her relationship with Larry.

Self-Surrender

Piper self-surrendered in February 2004, a decade after committing the offense for which she was convicted. As a glaring symbol of her privilege, Piper ate a foie gras sandwich while she waited to be processed. All throughout the dehumanizing intake process, the guards barked orders at her and treated her with minimal human dignity and respect. Piper underwent a humiliating strip search, during which she was forced to strip, bend over, squat, and cough, while the correctional officer (CO) performed a cavity search. At last, she was issued her prisoner number. She was no longer Piper Kerman; she was now federal inmate #11187-424, a new identity for a new life. So is Orange is the New Black a true story? Yes, and Piper’s inmate number is proof.

Adjusting to Prison Life

In the Orange is the New Black true story, Piper discusses issues within the prison system, including race. Race determined and defined the culture at Danbury. Segregation was the unwritten rule behind bars. Most of Piper’s friends were white, predominantly Italian-American. The prison officials reinforced this dynamic by lumping racial groups together into the same cell blocks, which, characteristically, bore stereotyped names (“Spanish Harlem” for the Latina inmates, “The Ghetto” for the African-American inmates). 

Piper clung to daily rituals and routines in an effort to give some order to her day and provide herself with some agency and mastery over her life—giving herself some power and control in a situation where she otherwise had none. So she would make her coffee the same way every morning; sit in the yard at her usual spot; and internalize the old prison mantra of doing your time, not letting your time do you.

Piper had to overcome some of her own subconscious prejudices about the kinds of people she now found herself living with. One day, a black inmate named Rochelle asked Piper if she could borrow one of her books. Piper was ashamed to discover that she harbored racialized fears that Rochelle would steal her book. When Rochelle returned it a week later, Piper mentally chided herself for assuming the worst about Rochelle. She saw that she had much to learn about humility—how was she any different than these other women?

Finding Community: Is Orange Is the New Black a True Story?

Inmates managed to hold on to their culture and dignity, even inside prison. The West Indian women and “Spanish mamis” managed to make genuinely delicious Latin and Caribbean dishes, using nothing more than junk food from the commissary as ingredients. The human spirit and passion for creativity could not be extinguished, even at Danbury.

Although Piper had chosen not to bunk with her, Pop became like a mother to Piper, guiding her through the trials and tribulations of prison with a unique mixture of compassion and tough love. She was exactly the kind of guardian figure someone like Piper needed in Danbury. She had a genuine warmth and compassion and made it her business to look out for the “girls” in her crew. And that now very much included Piper. 

The women of Danbury did everything they could to hold onto some sliver of their humanity and their individuality. This included setting up a makeshift beauty salon on campus and sewing alterations into their uniforms (strictly prohibited by the regulations) to better match their personal style. Piper also found strength in her community outside prison—from her parents, Larry, and friends, who came from all over the country, dropping other commitments to visit her. 

Hitting a Stride

After months of being told it was unavailable, Piper was finally able to acquire a portable radio from the commissary. The radio became her constant companion on her daily runs through the yard, the music connecting her back to the days of her youth, when she was carefree, foolish, and filled with limitless possibilities. Like so much else, it was a precious connection to her life in the world outside. On May 17, Piper celebrated her eighth anniversary with Larry and yearned for the day when she would be free again.

That spring, Piper helped two inmates earn their GEDs—her bunkmate Natalie and a longtime inmate named Mrs. Jones. This was important, because, without a high-school education, many inmates lacked the credentials to get decent jobs, often landing them right back in prison. Although Piper did a lot of the actual coursework (especially for the barely literate Mrs. Jones), she knew she was doing the right thing. When they graduated, Piper was overcome with emotion, openly weeping at seeing how these women had overcome such enormous obstacles to regain some power and agency over their lives in the Orange is the New Black true story.

One summer day, Piper enjoyed an unexpected trip to a picnic area by a lake, where the prisoners were laughing and enjoying the rare opportunity for outdoor recreation. Piper plunged her hands into the lake, feeling the cool water rush over her. Her work situation also improved that summer. After being humiliatingly sexually harassed by DeSimon, her odious boss in the electrical shop, Piper requested and received a work transfer away from him.

Systemic Failures

Piper saw how the American criminal justice system was very good at locking up addicts, but spectacularly bad at treating their addiction. The ideology driving the prison system was entirely retributive—there was almost no focus on restoration or rehabilitation, on making sure that people who were released from prison didn’t come back. The consequences of this failing system were everywhere—broken families, squandered opportunities, and ruined lives. 

Prisoners had no recourse against abuse at the hands of the guards—such was the nature of the drastic power imbalance between male guards and female prisoners. These men fed off the power they wielded over powerless inmates, relishing their authority and capacity to inflict harm on those who couldn’t fight back. 

Seeing Nora

In this environment, Nora and her sister were the only people with whom she was capable of forming some sort of friendship. They formed a trio in Chicago, hanging out together, cooking meals with one another (the sisters were accomplished prison chefs), and generally lamenting the sloppy and unprofessional conditions at the Chicago correctional center. 

Nora insisted to Piper that she had not given her name to the feds. Piper knew Nora to be a cunning and manipulative liar, but she decided to accept that she would never know the truth and let go of it. After nearly a decade of all-consuming hate toward Nora, it was time to make peace and move on.  

Is Orange is the New Black a True Story? Crafting a Memoir

After the largely pointless and perfunctory trial, Piper focused on her impending March 4 release. Piper took the time to reflect and take stock of her experience and the wild journey she’d been on. She’d found a community of women in prison that had saved her and made her feel less alone in the world. Their struggle and success in preserving their humanity in the face of a system that sought to crush it was nothing short of heroic. They taught her compassion she never thought herself capable of and revealed strengths she never knew she had.

On March 4, Piper received her final call to “pack out” (she was released two months early for good behavior, serving 13 months of her 15-month sentence). The COs took her down the service elevator of the federal prison in Chicago. And just like that, she was on the streets again in broad daylight, a free woman once more. Larry was waiting outside to meet her. She sprinted over to him as fast as she could. Her long ordeal was over at last—but she would be forever shaped by her experience and the incredible women with whom she’d shared it.

Is Orange Is the New Black a True Story?

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Piper Kerman's "Orange Is The New Black" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Orange Is The New Black summary:

  • The real, more nuanced story behind the hit TV show
  • How upper-class Piper Kerman landed in prison on drug charges
  • The key lessons Kerman learned about society and herself

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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