“I was a well-educated young lady from Boston with a thirst for bohemian counterculture and no clear plan,” Piper Kerman writes in her prison memoir, “Orange Is the New Black.” A decade after that directionless, thrill-seeking girl dabbled in drug trafficking, she found herself serving a yearlong stint at a federal women’s prison for the crime. In writing about doing time, Kerman joined a long list of notable prisoners who turned their sentences into books.
The literature of imprisonment begins, scholars say, with the sixth-century Roman philosopher Boethius, who spent a year awaiting execution by King Theodoric writing “Consolation of Philosophy,” a book meditating on good and evil, free will and happiness. In the modern era, Oscar Wilde wrote about his incarceration in “De Profundis,” while Malcolm X detailed his in “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” Jack London wrote a memoir of prison, and so did James Frey (his was fiction, of course).
Kerman’s book, originally published in 2010, spawned the Netflix television series of the same name; the show’s popularity has made the paperback edition a bestseller.
Writing about prison isn’t the end of Kerman’s involvement, though. Just as Wilde advocated for better conditions after his release from Reading prison (protesting especially against the jailing of children, he wrote to the warden that their treatment was “really an outrage on humanity and common sense”), Kerman’s post-release agenda includes prison reform.
Kerman serves on the board of the Women’s Prison Association, which works to help keep at-risk women out of prison, assist women’s re-entry into society after their prison terms end, and stop particularly cruel practices — such as shackling pregnant inmates during childbirth — that only affect women.
“Harshly punitive drug laws and diminishing community mental health resources have landed many women in prison who simply do not belong there,” Kerman wrote in a New York Times op-ed this year. Like Wilde and Boethius, she insists on the humanity of prisoners, having been one once herself.
Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.