You probably know the Netflix show Orange is the New Black, and you may or may not know that the plot is based on a true story. I wanted the details, which is what led me to Piper Kerman’s memoir, detailing her year in a women’s prison.
The first season is the truest to the book, of course with its differences as well, but the nature of how, when, and why Piper went to prison are all true. The beginning of the book tells the story of her crime, when she was in her twenties, and is almost identical to the scene in the show. The blonde wig disguise, the skipping of customs, and the love affair was all true. Even certain lines were the same, such as Piper’s grandmother asking what she did with all the money – to which Piper replied, “Well Grandma, I wasn’t really in it for the money…”
Much of her arrival to prison paralleled her real experience as well, such as getting the gift of a toothbrush from other white women and having her bed made for her so that they’d pass inspection. A lot of characters also parallel the show. The driver with a New York accent and bright red lipstick is certainly comparable to Lorna Morello, there’s a track star just like Janae, and Spanish mami’s that reminded me of Gloria and Maria. All names were changed for the show of course, and not all crimes in the show match up with those who committed them in real life.
The biggest difference between the book and the TV show, is that the real Alex Vause was not in the same prison as Piper. In the book, Piper calls the Alex character by the name of Nora Janson, but the real woman is named Cleary Wolters. The two of them did not end up together, and Piper is actually still happily married to Larry. Piper and Alex did cross paths when they ran into each other while being held in Chicago, where they were both called to testify against another man involved in their crime ring. There was a lot of tension during that time, and no romantic interactions. There was, however, a woman there who relentlessly tried to obtain Piper’s birth time and place for her chart.
Chicago also played a major factor of what was different in the book versus the TV show, as Piper’s release date actually came in real life while she was being held in Chicago for the trial. She was released from there, and had to fly home with Larry to New York. The final season of OTINB will show Piper’s release from prison, and I hope that they throw Piper Chapman the going-away party that Piper Kerman was robbed of.
If you are an avid fan of the show, the book is a great read. There’s many quick tidbits or opinions that became major story lines in the show, which is really fascinating to see how they used the book as a resource. It’s like they have their regular story line, and they frequently go back to the book whenever they needed inspiration.
Here are some more similarities and differences that I found interesting or noteworthy:
- Piper’s grandmother really did get sick and pass away while Piper was in prison. Piper did apply for furlough, but it was, of course, never granted.
- There really was a girl nicknamed Pennsatucky, and she really did get new teeth! However, she had no extreme religious story line, and she and Piper were actually good friends throughout their stay.
- Danbury becomes Litchfield. Yoga Janet becomes Yoga Jones. And Pop – who runs the kitchen, has a very long sentence, and often gets special treatment – becomes Red.
- Martha Stewart was sentenced to prison during this time, who would be comparable to the Judy character in the show. However, she did not serve time in the same camp as Piper. Though Danbury was the location requested by Martha so that she could be close to her grandmother, the camp was conveniently and temporarily closed at that time to ensure that Martha would not be taking one of the beds there, which could lead them to media scrutiny.
- Larry really did write a segment for a newspaper’s ‘modern love’ column. However, it had little to do with Piper’s time in prison. It was actually pretty short and very sweet, and about how much he loved Piper. Piper and Larry’s relationship is still a success to this day, and they reside together in Brooklyn.
Piper was also very reflective as she got to the end of the book, and was able to understand the bigger picture of her crimes. When she was a young girl moving this suitcase of money, she was not thinking of how drugs affect the rest of the country. She reflected on women who were put in terrible situations, and were involved in drug crimes simply because they had no other options. Piper also acknowledged her privilege and how she was given opportunities after leaving prison that other women would not be so lucky to have. She talked about how the U.S. correctional system does not do much “correcting”, and does not set up prisoners to have successful lives when they are released. Piper has gotten involved in prison reform and women’s rights since her release, and I hope that her efforts can better the lives of future women who are incarcerated.
If you are interested in Piper’s cause, you can visit www.piperkerman.com/justice-reform or facebook.com/orangeisthenewblack.
The seventh and final season of Orange Is The New Black will be released on Netflix on Friday, June 26th, 2019.
Thanks for reading!
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