One of my Top Ten Rules for Remaining Alive is to never interrupt an ex-con mid-sentence. But damn it, I couldn’t help it. You see, after spending 13 months in federal prison for drug trafficking, Piper Kerman wrote her memoir Orange Is the New Black to expose the nation’s overcrowded and under-effective correctional system as the hot cinder-block mess that it is. And since her 2005 release, she’s been an outspoken advocate for prison reform. Frankly, who could blame her?
“Inequality is on really stark display in our justice system. Different kinds of Americans are going to be treated differently not based on their crime but on their income level, etc.,” she told me during a recent interview. “When you’ve been through an experience like that and there are people who’ve helped you survive and you see that they never have the same opportunities that you had growing up and won’t be treated same way going home — that’s really hard to tolerate.”
Amen, sister. And yet — I’m so sorry. This is very bad. But what I really wanted to talk about with Kerman was … prison cheesecake. In her memoir — which spawned the hit Netflix series of the same name, and which is this year’s chosen UCSB Reads and Santa Barbara Reads book — she shares the recipe for this scrappy confection, which she perfected and brought to inmate shindigs at Connecticut’s Danbury federal prison. Rendered of Laughing Cow cheese, Coffee-mate, Oreos, and margarine stolen from the mess hall, it was “cooked” in a microwave and chilled in an ice-filled wash bucket under her cell bed for hours on end.
The book is packed with insightful observations that prove our “correctional” system is broken: Boob-groping, innuendo-spewing guards. Hours shackled and cuffed on Con Air without bathroom breaks. Addicts locked up for drug possession and counting the days until their release — and their next high.
But it’s the makeshift recipes, make-do yoga classes, and make-an-appointment pedicures that really brought the experience to life for me as a reader — the way these mothers and daughters and wives tried daily and futilely to re-create “normal” in a place designed to feel might-as-well-be-Mars foreign.
The Boston-born Kerman had just graduated Smith College when she began an affair with a woman who — it turns out — dealt heroin for a West African drug lord. Kerman traveled the world with her lover, which made her an accomplice; once, she even transported a suitcase of $10,000 cash from Chicago to Brussels.
Before long, Kerman ducked out of the drug ring and began life anew in San Francisco, falling for a sweet guy named Larry. But her past caught up with her and, 11 years after her youthful crime-spree-by-association, she was locked up and left to fend for her highly educated, WASP-y self behind bars.
Despite what’s depicted in the sensationalized TV show, Kerman said she never saw a single act of violence during her year in the clink. “People always assume the worst thing will be the other prisoners, but that was not my experience at all,” she said. “The worst thing is being taken away from your loved ones, the loss of your personal liberty, and the vulnerability that accompanies it.”
I finally did summon the chutzpah to interrupt Kerman and ask about a touchy subject: public shame. You’ve made lemonade out of an unfathomable situation, I said. But is there any aspect of being a convicted felon that dogs you in the “real world”? Would Smith College, for example, hail you as an esteemed alumnae?!
She laughed. “Since the book came out, every single place I’ve gone there have been Smithies, like, cheering me on,” she said. “But it’s actually not a success story. It’s a failure story. One thing it brings out is that everybody falls down. People want to be reminded of how human beings find a way to be resilient — and they are resilient. That’s something you’ll see behind the walls of a jail.”
Kerman will speak and sign books at a UCSB Arts & Lectures free event on Wednesday, April 15, at 8 p.m. at UCSB’s Campbell Hall.