Orange Is the New Black was a smash hit for Netflix, and its background happened to be based on a true story. Created by Jenji Kohan (who was also behind the popular Showtime series Weeds), Orange Is the New Black hit streaming in 2013. The world met Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a woman who’s sentenced to do to time at the now-famous (but fictional) Litchfield Penitentiary after being caught helping her ex-girlfriend, Alex (Laura Prepon), transport money from a drug-smuggling operation. She’s sentenced to 15 months in jail, only to be put in the same prison as the same ex who led to her very imprisonment.
With a signature blend of sarcastic, black humor-riddled comedy and serious drama, Piper certainly isn’t Orange Is the New Black’s only main character. Rather, the show features an ensemble cast of female inmates, prison employees, and civilian loved ones from a wide variety of backgrounds. Today, the world knows that the Netflix series’ formula was incredibly successful. Orange Is the New Black amassed legions of fans who were ready and inspired to binge a new season (there ended up being seven of them, as it’s one of Netflix’s longest-running series) whenever one dropped.
Interestingly, Piper Chapman is based on a real woman: Piper Kerman. The background for the show came from her 2010 book Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, which, as the name implies, is based on her own time in a real-life penitentiary. Here’s a look at Kerman’s true story, as well as certain elements that were tweaked for the on-screen storytelling of Orange Is the New Black during its seven seasons.Kerman’s book provided the foundation for what became Orange Is the New Black. The memoir follows true stories from her life, specifically the aftermath of getting involved in drug trafficking and money laundering with her ex-girlfriend. Afterwards, she attempted to get her life back together, but six years later ended up sentenced to 15 months in prison for those crimes. The rest of the book discusses how prison changed her life. Her novel was well received and subsequently adapted into the Netflix show.Orange Is the New Black went on for seven years, eventually straying from the source material. The real Piper did fall for a woman in a drug ring and was sent to jail because of it. In the show, Piper’s prison reunion with this ex-girlfriend is a huge focus. But, as TV Time reports, the real Piper wasn’t in the same prison as her ex like the Orange Is the New Black character. The two only saw each other during their trial. In fact, most relationships and interactions with other inmates were embellished for the show. Orange Is the New Black showed Piper constantly feuding with other inmates, including Red, from the get-go. But Kerman said the inmates she interacted with in prison were actually incredibly welcoming. Iterations of many of those women she met made it into the show. For example, Den of Geek reported that a glamourous transgender woman referred to as Vanessa inspired Sophia’s character in the show, and the Russian maternal figure referred to as Pop became Red in Orange Is the New Black.
Both versions of Piper were sentenced to 15 months in prison. Kerman only served 13 months of that sentence, as she was released early for good behavior. But in both real life and in the true story-inspired Netflix series, it’s clear that prison changed Piper. In the Orange Is the New Black series finale, it’s revealed that Piper has begun taking civil procedure courses. After Kerman got out of prison in real life, she became a fierce advocate for women’s rights in the American prison system, often speaking out on their behalf at hearings and lectures. Both the fictional and real versions of Piper had a life-changing experience in prison that they used to make other women’s lives better.
Piper Kerman’s true story was pretty wild, but it wasn’t quite as dramatic as Orange Is the New Black depicts. The hookups, adversaries, and more were blown out of proportion for the Netflix original show. Despite the changes from page to screen, both the fictional and real Piper’s stories had the same message — women’s prisons in the US are in major need of some significant reforms.