PORTLAND, Maine — Author Piper Kerman told an audience of corrections officials in Portland on Tuesday that telling hopeful stories about incarcerated women will help galvanize support for rehabilitative programs geared toward women’s unique needs and experiences.
Kerman — whose bestselling memoir about life as a woman in prison, “Orange is the New Black,” spurred a hit television show by the same name — is credited with bringing the plight of incarcerated women to a more mainstream audience.
On Tuesday, she was the keynote speaker for the 15th biennial Adult & Juvenile Female Offenders Conference, which drew more than 400 specialized corrections officials from across the country to Portland’s Holiday Inn By The Bay for five days of presentations and workshops.
“Everywhere I go, people talk about ‘Orange is the New Black,’” said Erica King, a University of Southern Maine policy analyst who has specialized in corrections research. “People who never used to care what I did for a living.”
Kerman spent 13 months in a Connecticut prison starting in 2004 on charges of money laundering and drug trafficking for agreeing to transport a bag of drug money from Chicago to Brussels for a former girlfriend more than a decade earlier.
A college-educated woman from a financially stable Massachusetts family, Kerman said the prison stint was an eye-opening experience. She said she wrote her book to expose the difficult lives of incarcerated women to a wider audience.
“I was shocked when I listened to my [jail cell] neighbor, a 19-year-old woman, talk so casually about ‘getting a beatdown’ by her boyfriend,” she recalled. “In her experience, that’s just what boyfriends do.”
Kerman said the vast majority of women in prisons have experienced trauma in their lives, and they need counseling and rehabilitative programs tailored to those specific needs. But she acknowledged that her education, financial stability, lack of a history of abuse and even race made her a more accessible, less threatening “incarcerated woman” figurehead for many Americans.
“When I sat down to write my book, I wasn’t writing for all of you [at this conference],” she told her Tuesday morning audience. “I wrote that book for people who might not have ever set foot in a jail or had any contact with the criminal justice system.”
Some who attended the conference said they saw “Orange is the New Black” as a mixed blessing. Jill Evans, women and family services coordinator for the Vermont Department of Corrections, noted that “the one good” corrections officer depicted on the television adaptation is shown having sex with an inmate.
“I worry that this show that serves as a greater conversation starter among the wider community also stigmatizes corrections officers as a bunch of idiots,” Evans told Kerman after her address.
Kerman responded, “I’ve also heard from prison inmates that the guards [in the show] are far too nice.”
The author said it’s important to note that the television show, which is produced by Lionsgate Television and debuted on Netflix in July, does not mirror her book exactly. Kerman is a consultant to the show. She does read the scripts and makes suggestions, but has no final say over how the episodes will go.
On the television show, actress Taylor Schilling plays Piper Chapman, a character based on Kerman. “That ‘70s Show” star Laura Prepon plays a character based on Kerman’s former drug-dealer girlfriend.
“Piper Chapman is definitely not Piper Kerman,” Kerman told the Bangor Daily News in an interview Tuesday. “There are scenes in the show that are taken from the book almost verbatim, but there are other scenes that are wild departures from what took place in the book.”
Kerman said she’s OK with the artistic liberties taken by show creator Jenji Kohan, whose credits also include the critically acclaimed Showtime series “Weeds.”
“They create a world that is authentic and believable,” Kerman said. “As long as they keep it as, ‘Yes, this could happen in a correctional facility,’ I’m fine with it.”
In part to respond to criticisms that the corrections officials in the show were depicted in too negative a light, Kerman offered some hints about what’s in the works for future episodes of the show, which has already been picked up for a second season.
“You may be pleased by what you see in the second season with regard to the [Department of Corrections] workers and, should there be a third season, you might see a perspective shift in the show much like you saw in ‘The Wire,’” Kerman told conference attendees Tuesday.