Jenji Kohan’s Orange is the New Black explored the lives of women inmates in a fictional prison. And the iconic Netflix show is inspired from a true story, which makes it even more chilling and poignant.
The series, created by Kohan, premiered in 2013, introducing us to Piper Chapman—played with the perfect dose of rich white woman privilege by Taylor Schilling. Kohan used Piper as her “Trojan Horse” to tell stories about marginalised women often forgotten in these narratives.
“In a lot of ways Piper was my Trojan Horse. You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals.” Kohan explained insightfully in an interview, “But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories. But it’s a hard sell to just go in and try to sell those stories initially. The girl next door, the cool blonde, is a very easy access point, and it’s relatable for a lot of audiences and a lot of networks looking for a certain demographic. It’s useful.”
Chapman gets sentenced and sent to Litchfield Penitentiary for her involvement in a decade-old drug trafficking and money laundering. While the show took quite a few artistic liberties with the source material, many of the characters and events were inspired by the real experiences of Piper Kerman.
Who was Piper Chapman, aka Piper Kerman, from Orange is the New Black?
Kerman’s memoir, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, published in 2010, laid the foundation for the show. Her story closely follows her own life, detailing her entanglement in drug trafficking and money laundering alongside her ex-girlfriend. While she never transported drugs, Kerman moved money for her girlfriend’s operation before eventually walking away. Years later, she was sentenced to 15 months in prison for her earlier actions. The memoir explores how her time behind bars changed her life.
The TV series, spanning seven seasons, takes some detours while keeping the essence of Kerman’s narrative intact. For instance, the portrayal of Piper’s tumultuous relationship with her ex-girlfriend and fellow inmate Alex (played by Laura Prepon) was amplified for dramatic effect. In reality, the two didn’t share a prison until their trial, unlike the show’s portrayal.
The character of Vause in the show was based on Catherine Cleary Wolters, though Kerman used a false name in her memoir. Following the show’s fame, Wolters revealed her identity and even wrote her own memoir, Out Of Orange, in 2015, discussing the distinctions between fact and fiction. Since the series ended in 2019, Wolters has mostly kept a low profile.
The series’ ensemble cast of inmates, employees, and loved ones reflects the prison system’s diversity. While the interactions and relationships among the characters were fictionalised, they were often inspired by real inmates Kerman encountered during her time in prison. Notably, Sophia’s character was influenced by a glamorous transgender woman named Vanessa, and Red’s character drew inspiration from a maternal figure named Pop.
Both the fictional Piper Chapman and the real Piper Kerman were sentenced to 15 months, although Kerman served 13 due to good behaviour. Their time in prison marked a turning point, leading them to advocate for prison reform and women’s rights. The show’s finale reveals Piper’s pursuit of education, mirroring Kerman’s real-life commitment to advocacy and education after her release.
In the real world, Kerman has made significant contributions as an advocate for women’s rights and prison reform. She has spoken at hearings on prison reform, taught creative writing courses in women’s prisons, and worked as a communication strategist for non-profit organisations. Her journey has been about turning her experiences into a force for positive change.
Orange is the New Black may have embellished certain aspects for entertainment, but its core message remains clear: the US women’s prison system needs reform. Kerman’s real-life transformation from inmate to advocate exemplifies the impact that personal stories can have on society.
As the show’s legacy lives on, it reminds us that true stories, even when dramatised, can shed light on important issues and inspire change.