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March 31, 2014

Meet the real Piper Kerman

Swampscott native penned book about life behind bars

On the eve of the Massachusetts House of Representatives passing a bill preventing the shackling of female inmates during childbirth, Piper Kerman, author of “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison,” captivated a standing-room-only audience at the Sakowich Center at Merrimack College.

Kerman, whose book was made into a hit Netflix series last year, called for continued prison reform Wednesday night, offering firsthand stories of her time behind bars at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Conn.

“We all have something in our past we might not be proud of. Hopefully for you, it’s not a felony,” said Kerman, a Swampscott native and 1992 Smith College graduate.

Kerman was indicted in 1998 for money laundering and drug trafficking and upon the advice of her lawyers, reached a plea deal with the government. She pleaded guilty to money laundering and received a 15-month prison sentence.

It was in 2004, more than 10 years after Kerman carried drug money from Chicago to Brussels in 1993, that her journey through the justice system landed her in the all-female, low-security correctional facility in Danbury.

Her story is well documented; her 2010 book remains on the New York Times best-seller list and was adapted as an original television series by the same name that aired last year on Netflix. A second season is scheduled to begin on June 6.

Kerman said she wrote the book to fill the public’s insatiable curiosity about the inner workings of the judicial system and life behind bars, especially from a woman’s perspective. She also did it as a as call for prison reform.

Kerman cited a number of powerful statistics about the imprisonment of women. Women face an 800 percent increase in the incarceration rate since 1980, two times that of men. Nearly two-thirds of women currently imprisoned are nonviolent offenders, predominantly for drug related crimes. There are 830,000 women currently out of prison on parole or probation. And there are 1.3 million dependent children with a mother under criminal justice supervision.

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