Roughly a decade ago, Piper Kerman found herself poised at the beginning of a federal prison sentence.
“I remember pulling up into that parking lot and looking at that razor wire fence and being like, ‘Oh, what is going to happen behind that fence?’” the author and activist recalled. “I was scared.”
On Thursday, Kerman spoke about her best-selling memoir, “Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison,” — and the Peabody Award-winning Netflix series it inspired — in front of a sold-out crowd at Cuesta College’s Cultural and Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo.
She appeared as part of the 2014 Book of the Year program, which is co-sponsored by Cuesta and the San Luis Obispo City-County Library.
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Introducing Kerman to a packed, primarily female crowd, Pamela Ralston, Cuesta’s dean of academic affairs, arts, humanities and social sciences, called her account of prison life “compelling” and apt to inspire compassion.
Published in 2010, “Orange Is the New Black” details Kerman’s experiences behind bars at a federal correctional institution in Danbury, Conn., where the Smith College graduate served 11 months on money-laundering charges stemming from a youthful dalliance with a drug smuggler.
The experience, plus a two-month stay at a federal jail in Chicago related to the same sentence, transformed Kerman’s views of the correctional system and the men and women who inhabit it.
“Our image of prisons and of prisoners is of uncontrollably violent people in uncontrollably violent places,” explained Kerman, now a New York communications consultant focusing on nonprofits, philanthropies and other public interest groups.
What she encountered instead was kindness and friendship from a community of women determined to make “a life inside” while maintaining ties with the outside.
After completing her sentence in 2005, Kerman discovered that “everyone wanted to know about the experience in as much detail as I was willing to describe.”
“What happens behind the walls of a prison or jail is largely hidden from the public view,” she said, so she decided to share her story with readers and, later, with Netflix watchers.
Among the most enthusiastic audience members at Thursday’s event were 35 inmates from the County Jail’s Women’s Honor Farm program. Dressed in matching light blue shirts and dark blue pants, the women, who participate in a Restorative Partners book club, giggled in recognition as Kerman shared details of her time in prison. Each clutched a paperback copy of “Orange Is the New Black,” which the author later signed.
During the course of her talk, Kerman, who serves on the board of the Women’s Prison Association, shared statistics about incarceration rates and outlined what she sees as important themes in “Orange Is the New Black,” including the varying roles race, class, gender and family play in the correctional system.
She also listed the three areas of focus she feels could effectively transform that system: common-sense sentencing, public defense reform and changing the way the justice system treats juvenile offenders.
Kerman closed by expressing a plea for the same empathy she discovered behind bars. “All I want is for everyone in the system to be judged not only for their worst day but for their best days,” she said.