'Orange Is the New Black' author talks about today's Big Change Baltimore event

Piper Kerman, author of "Orange Is the New Black."
Piper Kerman, author of "Orange Is the New Black." (Brian Bowen Smith)

Piper Kerman, author of "Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison," will be one of the featured speakers at the Big Change Baltimore forum from 3:30 to 7 p.m. today at Center Stage, 700 North Calvert St. Her book has been adapted into a Netflix series for which she is a consultant. She and Bill Keller, former executive editor of The New York Times and now editor-in-chief of The Marshall Project, will be appearing together at today’s event, which is presented by Open Society Institute-Baltimore. Other speakers include professor and author Ian Haney Lopez, UMBC president Freeman A. Hrabowski and actress Maria Broom.

Q. Can you tell me what your role is going to be in the Open Society program in Baltimore?

A. Well, the Open Society Foundation, as I'm sure you know, has been investing in Baltimore for a number of years, and has made Baltimore part of their criminal justice reform strategy, a proving ground in a lot of ways.  And I'm really looking forward to this conversation. I've never met Bill Keller face to face, but his work is, of course, well known. I'm looking forward to a spirited conversation with him about issues that are relevant to folks living in and around Baltimore…


Q. Could you be specific about some of those issues?

A. Some of the things that we see in Baltimore and obviously in Maryland, you know, include Maryland's spending on criminal justice and prisons being very high and, you know, there are a lot of other states spending a ton of money on incarceration as well. I always describe investment in prisons and jail cells as doubling down on failure.


Investing in the things in a community that really do make it much more safe – things like great public schools, thriving libraries, hospitals and community health centers – what you find is that those communities are prosperous communities, thriving communities and really safe communities.

And when we pour money into prisons and jails, ultimately, that's not going to yield us a ton of return as a community goes. That's not money you're going to get back in a positive way.

… So, at the very frontline is this question of public dollars and public investment, and what do we want our government putting our tax dollars into…

Q. Can I ask a few questions about the Netflix production of "Orange Is the New Black"?

A. Sure.

Q. The series was adapted from your book, but do you have any involvement with it now?

A. I am a consultant on the show. And what that means is that I answer questions from [showrunner] Jenji Kohan and team of eight writers… Not all questions, just the ones I can. In Season 2, as I'm sure you know, there's a bank robbery story line, so I was getting a lot of questions about bank robberies. And I said, 'You know what? As it turns out, this is not my area of expertise, but I know somebody who knows a lot about bank robberies.' So, I put them in touch with someone who I knew could fill them in.

When the scripting process starts, I do read the scripts, and I send feedback directly to Jenji. I just email it to her and say, 'Hey, here's what I think.' And it's her to take or leave. I try to keep my feedback focused on helping them make Litchfield Prison a realistic world.

I don't think they need a lot of help on things like character development or some of the story lines. But if there's something that's scripted that departs a bit from the reality of a federal prison for women, I try to help them bring it back in line…

The American criminal justice system is a crucible of American inequality, because, you know, the irony is, of course, we have this fundamental  set of values and things that the Constitution says about all Americans being treated equally in a court of law and getting a fair day in court.

But, of course, you know, when we look at the criminal justice system and how things actually transpire, we see that's certainly not what happens, and I think that's one of the things this show demonstrates, which is great.

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