Five-minute memoir: A stint in a women's prison proved an eye-opener for Piper Kerman

'I came to understand that I was now part of an unusual community'

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The Independent Culture

I stared at the lake, glinting in the sunlight. Half the summer had passed, and yet I had not been swimming. There were boats bobbing on the water, comfortable houses on the opposite shore, birds singing in the trees. I'd been brought to this idyllic, peaceful spot by a prison officer, to repair picnic benches for prison staff. It seemed a million miles from the harsh, cacophonous cinder block building, surrounded by vicious razor wire, where I and the small band of my fellow workers lived.

That summer, in the wretchedly hot, decrepit prison camp, the payphones went dead, the washing machines broke, and the hair dryers disappeared. Two hundred women in the unit, no phones, no washers, no hair dryers – it was like Lord of the Flies on oestrogen, and I didn't want to be Piggy.

I was halfway through serving a sentence of just over a year for a drug offence. In my early twenties, I had become embroiled in a romance with an older woman, who I deemed impossibly sophisticated, and who also turned out to be a drug trafficker; at her request, I carried a bag of money to Brussels, a terrifying foray into crime. Years later, the consequences of my actions came back to me in the form of federal officers knocking on my door with an indictment.

Iarrived at the Danbury Federal Prison Camp in the dead of winter, and spent the early months with my mouth shut and my eyes open. What I saw was not what I expected. Prison is often portrayed as relentlessly and uncontrollably violent. It is, I quickly learnt, by design, a place of scarcity, and I did see conflict as prisoners battled to get their basic needs met. Yet I never witnessed physical violence and realised that the danger I feared from other women was not going to materialise.

Quite the opposite, I came to understand that I was now part of an unusual community – a true community, albeit involuntary – and that I must find my place within the group. My sanity and survival depended on my creating a niche in the social ecology of the prison. The loss of one's liberty instinctively provokes resistance and defiance, but that's a good way to get locked up in solitary confinement.

My fellow prisoners' situations were mostly direr than mine. I found myself shoulder to shoulder with women who were doing much longer sentences – five, seven or 10 years – and I grew increasingly sceptical that their crimes were more serious than mine. I learnt that they met their lawyers briefly in court on the day of sentencing, rather than months in advance in expansive conference rooms, and that how they looked and where they lived directly influenced the amount of time they served.

It's hard to imagine if you have never been incarcerated, the degree to which the life of the institution takes over your life. Whether doing long or short time, we were sweating it out in close quarters. I was fortunate to have strong ties to the outside world – my fiancé, friends and family: they had the resources to visit me, send me treasured books and put money in my account for phone calls. I was grateful for these lifelines, but I realised that I was deeply enmeshed in the daily dramas of the prison.

I worked in the electric shop where I was sexually and verbally harassed by the supervising officer; I ghostwrote term papers for another prisoner; shared books from my stash; and painted the warden's house. On one of the hottest days of the summer, I was proud to be an invited guest to the graduation ceremony of the women who had earnt their high-school degrees, including my bunkmate, a proud and stoic woman in her late fifties who had finally passed after numerous tries. Make no mistake: it is extremely difficult to get an education behind bars. But on that day my friends were like any teenage graduates, looking sharp in their caps and gowns and claiming their hard-won achievement.

As I paid my debt to society that year, one thing got burnt into my brain: without spouting all the statistics I knew about our country's growing prison population, I saw that America has gone horribly awry in how we use the penitentiary. Prison is now a place where the US government puts not only the dangerous, but also the inconvenient – people who are mentally ill, or addicts, or poor and uneducated and unskilled. What I had done meant I should be there, but there were plenty standing right beside me who shouldn't. As I looked out into the lake on that summer's day, I began to see my way home.

Piper Kerman is the author of 'Orange is the New Black' (Abacus, £7.99). Series 1 of the TV series of her book is available now on Netflix