How To Get By In Women’s Prison, By The Writer Of Orange Is The New Black

OITNB's real-life Piper on the lessons she learnt in jail


At this stage you’d have to be living on a remote, wifi-free island to avoid hearing about – if not getting hooked on – Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black. But what you might not know is that middle-class drug mule Piper Chapman (played by Taylor Schilling) is based on real-life writer Piper Kerman. Kerman served 13 months in jail for money-laundering charges, and used the experience as the subject of her memoir, on which the show is based.

At an Amnesty International event over the weekend, Kerman spoke to Vulture about her experiences of surviving prison life, which provide a handy guidebook for anyone who might one day find themselves in a cell. (Take it from Kerman: it could be you.) In case you’re planning a bank heist this weekend, here are her top tips.

1. Keep your mouth shut.
If we found ourselves in prison, we’d be abiding by a “Speak only when you’re spoken to” rule. According to Kerman, this is the correct approach: “The very first piece of advice that I would give to anyone who is unfortunate enough to be sent to prison is to, in general, keep their mouth shut and their eyes open when they first arrive. That means everything from keeping your mouth shut in terms of being respectful and not asking too many questions, even though you have a million questions … [to] respecting other people’s privacy and also guarding your own privacy rather carefully. And eyes open obviously because you need to learn as much as you can about the context you’re now going to live in.”

2. It’s not who you know, it’s what you know.
(Although we suspect knowing someone powerful and scary might also be helpful.) “Information is the single most valuable currency in prison by far,” says Kerman. “Obviously, prisoners aren’t supposed to touch money. There are other things like cigarettes or something that might function like currency, but information is the single most important and most valuable currency if you’re incarcerated.”

3. Look after yourself.
Not just in the “watch your back” way, but in the very basic sense of staying healthy. “Get together health-wise because you cannot count on adequate medical care while you are incarcerated,” says Kerman. “You should do everything you can possibly do to be physically healthy both before you go to prison and while you’re incarcerated.”

4. And finally, forget everything you know about sanitary towels.
No longer just a monthly necessity, sanitary pads became a prison failsafe for Kerman. “In every single women’s prison, maxi pads are a big deal. We used them as a dish sponge, dust magnet, mattress pad, toilet-seat guard. Crazy.”

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