The McLean Community Center’s Alden Theatre saw a packed house Sunday afternoon for a presentation by Piper Kerman. Kerman is the author of Orange Is the New Black, a memoir which spawned the acclaimed Netflix original series, about her experience serving time in a women’s prison.
Kerman, in a lecture and book-signing sponsored by the Fairfax County Public Library, spoke before the crowd just days after Netflix released the second season of the award-winning comedy-drama, a debut heralded by media buzz and binge-watching from die-hard fans of the show.
A handful of audience members, when asked by Kerman if they’d watched the 13-episode second season of “Orange Is the New Black” since its Friday release, said they had. Most had seen some of the series, which launched last summer and has since won a Peabody Award and People’s Choice Awards.
But Kerman’s talk touched only briefly on the dramatic and somewhat fictionalized Netflix series. Her focus was instead on her real-life experience as a prisoner and the experience of women in the justice system.
Kerman served 13 months of a 15-month sentence on money laundering and drug trafficking charges. She was released early for good behavior; she jokes that she is much better behaved than Piper Chapman, her counterpart on the show and the protagonist caught in precarious situations stemming from desire, deceit, and power struggles.
She is fortunate, Kerman stressed in her talk, and many of the women she did time with were not. She had access to healthcare and education growing up. She had a family waiting for her when she got out, a fiancé who literally stood at the door on her release date – she calls Larry Smith, now her husband, the hero of the story. She was able to find employment. She now works in communications for nonprofits.
In roughly the last 30 years, Kerman said, the population of women in prison has grown by more than 800 percent. The male prison population has grown as well, but at half the rate – about 400 percent. Women of color and the mentally ill account for a disproportionate part of the prison population. And two-thirds of female prisoners, she said, are serving time for non-violent offenses; many of those infractions are drug-related, like her own. These are more than statistics to Kerman; they represent real women that she knows, and with whom she has served time.
“I see their faces, and I hear their voices,” Kerman said.
Since serving her sentence, Kerman has become an advocate for incarcerated women through her work with groups like the Women’s Prison Association, which for nearly 150 years has served women in the criminal justice system. In speaking engagements across the nation, Kerman not only shares her personal experience as an inmate, but speaks out for justice reform.