How a year in jail changed this woman's idea of happiness

Orange is the New Black chronicles Piper Kerman's past life that came back to haunt her -- and left her entering a minimum-security prison for more than a year.

Author Piper Kerman attends the Netflix Presents 'Orange Is The New Black' Special Screening at AMC Loews Broadway 4 on June 17, 2013 in Santa Monica, California.

Author Piper Kerman attends the Netflix Presents ‘Orange Is The New Black’ Special Screening at AMC Loews Broadway 4 on June 17, 2013 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Netflix)

Piper Kerman seemed like a very good girl — until she ended up in jail. She was living in Brooklyn with her fiance, when a decade-old relationship with an international drug runner came back to haunt her, resulting in a plea-deal to money-laundering and a 15-month prison sentence. Her memoir, Orange is the New Black, has been adapted into a a new, and original, Netflix series (available now).

We chatted with Piper last week about what made her happy in prison and why she considers herself one of the lucky ones.

Q: What were your days like in prison? What did you actually do?
A: The days were very structured. They started with a 6 a.m. wakeup, lights on and then an hour to get downstairs, have breakfast, and then head off to work. I worked as an electrician and construction worker, and that’s what I did for a big chunk of the day. In the U.S., at 4 p.m. there’s a count at every prison in the country. Then, after the evening meal, there’s time I wouldn’t exactly describe as “free”.

I would seek my happiness down on the small, gravel track trying to chase a little piece of happiness. I escaped via books. And I also spent time with the women who came to be very close friends — which was the last thing I expected.

Q: Do you think your time in prison fundamentally changed who you are?
A: Absolutely. On a very personal level, it deepened my gratitude for my good fortune, for my loving family and my strong network of friends, for my education and my good health — so many things that were different from the women I was locked up with, who didn’t have the same advantages. I also have a profound sense of how unequal our society is, and the criminal justice system really treats poor people in a different way. We’re much less forgiving towards them.

Q: How has your idea of happiness changed since you were in prison?
A: The things that will make you happy are the moments of inner strength you can draw upon. Being alone on that gravel track, having some sense of agency over my own body in a system when they want to take away all control. The freedom of mind that comes from reading and writing. And your relationships with others. Those are the fundamental things you need to be truly happy.

Q: How did you start to move on once you were released? Was it difficult to reintegrate?
A: For me, my return home was much easier than it is for most people. I was coming home to a safe and stable place. I was coming home to Larry, my then-fiance and now-husband, who was waiting for me with open arms. And I came home to a job that a friend created for me in his marketing department. I can’t overstate how important those things were for me to come home successfully.

Q: How else was your experience different from the more-typical experience?
A: All of those things are very different. Things like housing and employment are formidable challenges to most people coming home after prison. They might have nowhere to go, or they might be going back to a situation that got them in trouble in the first place. The ability to earn a living wage when you get home is also a big challenge, and not having legitimate work makes it hard to live a law-abiding life.