My Year in a Women’s Prison: Piper Kerman’s Lessons

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What is Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison about? What does Piper Kerman learn from her experiences in prison?

In Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison Piper Kerman describes the friends she makes and the humiliation she faces while she is incarcerated. By the time of her release, Piper learned valuable lessons about justice, inequality, and more.

Read more about Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison.

Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison

Now a seasoned prisoner, Piper acknowledged to herself that she had been indifferent to suffering before coming to prison—but that a transformation had taken place within her. She was, in fact, a good person, capable of compassion and empathy and able to provide real comfort and help to those in need. Piper found that she was now experienced enough to serve as a comforting and nurturing figure to new inmates (just as people like Pop and Rosemarie had been to her). 

Unfortunately, the thing Piper most feared eventually came to pass when her grandmother finally died on the day after Thanksgiving. It was a devastating loss, especially not having the opportunity to properly say goodbye, but she was able to mourn with the new community of women she found at Danbury. In Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, these women are the reason Piper gets through her hardship, and comes to respect that women who she’d previously looked down upon were no different than her.

Christmas at Danbury

Toward the end of Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, Piper finds out that she was going to leave Danbury in order to testify in the drug case. In the second week of December, Piper’s lawyer contacted her to tell her that her time in Danbury might be coming to an end very soon, but not because she was getting early release—there was a good chance, he warned her, that she would be transported to Chicago to testify against an old drug ring associate named Jonathan Bibby. Piper had never met Bibby and didn’t remember him, but her lawyer said this made no difference. Part of Piper’s plea agreement stipulated that she would serve as a government witness if asked to do so. Now, she was going to be called upon to hold up her end of the bargain. Pop darkly warned Piper about what it would be like to be air transported on a BOP plane, telling her, “Oh baby, the airlift is nothing nice.”

Piper had heard the horror stories from other women who’d flown courtesy of BOP. Some women she knew told her that they’d been sent to gruesome local prisons (especially in the South) while waiting to appear as witnesses in federal trials, where conditions were far worse than anything at Danbury. In her last phone call with Larry before packing out, Piper was careful not to discuss any specific details about the journey, knowing that the feds were listening—and might think she was planning an escape if she revealed too much.

On Christmas Day, Piper learned that she would definitely be transported to Chicago in the new year to participate in Bibby’s trial. This was dreadful news—she did not know how long this would take, if she would ever be returned to Danbury before her ultimate release, and if she would ever get to enjoy a proper goodbye party with her friends and “family” at Danbury. This knowledge put a damper on her holiday, though she still enjoyed seeing how the inmates transformed the drab TV room into a stunning Christmas village using nothing more than homemade decorations. Even in prison, these women found ways to create beauty.

Packing Out

On January 3, the guards told Piper to pack out—she was leaving Danbury. She put her few possessions in a duffel bag and made her way to the transport bus. On her way out of Danbury, she received advice and warnings from the other inmates about how to handle the grueling journey she was about to undertake. This was one of the most harrowing experiences for Piper in Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison.

One woman told Piper to wear a sanitary pad inside her underwear, because she might not be able to urinate for hours on end. They also advised Piper to eat whatever was offered, because they didn’t know how long it would be until she would have the chance to eat again. Perhaps the grimmest piece of advice Piper got was to smile at the guards escorting her onto the plane so they wouldn’t cuff her too tightly and kill her circulation.

As she boarded the transport bus that would take her to the plane, Piper had only her duffel bag and a piece of paper, on which she wrote the names and contact information of everyone she knew both inside and outside of prison. She was afraid of getting “lost” in the sloppy prison bureaucracy and wanted to make sure she would be able to contact the outside world to make sure her lawyer, friends, and family knew her whereabouts.

Surrounding the plane were US Marshals with automatic weapons—an intimidating sight for all the women being packed onto the aircraft toward an unknown fate. Piper boarded the plane in the company of her friend Jae and Jae’s cousin, who went by the name Slice. Jae and Slice were also being transported to give testimony in the trial of a co-defendant. When she got onto the plane, Piper had to help her seatmate into her seat and later feed her during the flight, as the woman was totally shackled and immobilized. There were many co-defendants traveling on the plane together, even members of the same family like Jae and Slice. 

To her shock, the plane was also filled with male convicts. Although the marshals admonished the male prisoners and forbade them from looking at or speaking to the women, it was no use. The male convicts made lewd and menacing catcalls as the women boarded the plane, with several of them addressing Piper directly as “Blondie.” Piper didn’t like COs or the militarized security procedures that treated every prisoner as if they were a dangerous killer, but she made an exception in this case—she was very glad to see the shackles on these men.

Oklahoma City: The End of Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison

After picking up several new prisoners at stops along its journey west, Piper’s plane finally landed in Oklahoma City. Piper was ushered immediately from the plane into the Federal Transfer Center, Oklahoma City. The prison seemed to be located right at the edge of the airport, because Piper never saw any of the outside world in her quick trip from the plane to the facility.

She learned that this was a temporary holding facility that held prisoners either awaiting trial or waiting to testify in someone else’s trial. No one stayed long in Oklahoma City, but this would be Piper’s home until her time came to testify against Bibby in Chicago. Upon arrival, she was issued a meager breakfast consisting of cereal, a bag of milk, and some coffee. She and Jae worried that they would starve if they were forced to live on such a diet.

Unlike the open dormitory plan at Danbury, the inmates at Oklahoma City lived in cells, complete with bars and locks. Although she’d had bunkmates in Danbury, this was the first time since her self-surrender that she had a cellmate. Conditions in Danbury had obviously been awful and unlike anything Piper had ever experienced before. But she had a community of women there that she loved and that loved her back. It was what had sustained her for nearly a year. 

Now, in Oklahoma City, she was deprived of all that. She was alone all over again and completely isolated. The phones didn’t work, and there were no televisions, radios, or even newspapers. Piper lacked almost all contact with the outside world. She had no job in Oklahoma City, no way to pass the days. Life was dull and monotonous—the lack of windows made it difficult to even tell the passage of time. Days melted into one another. How long would she be here? When would she be whisked out of Oklahoma City onto a transport to her next prison, as had many of the women with whom she’d arrived? Piper began to feel as if she was adrift, lost in Neverland, not knowing when she’d get back to the real world and her real life. 

Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison taught Piper incredibly valuable lessons about justice, equality, and the resilience of humankind.

My Year in a Women’s Prison: Piper Kerman’s Lessons

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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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