Tabi Jackson Gee | Contributing Writer | Sunday, 20 March 2016

How Much Of Orange Is The New Black Is Actually A True Story?

How Much Of Orange Is The New Black Is Actually A True Story?

The Debrief: With just a few months to go until the new season returns, refresh yourself on the background story

It feels like years since we last got to binge watch OITNB. And boy do we miss the weird and wonderful inmates of Litchfield Penitentiary. We miss their GSOH, their scariness, their next-level name calling. We miss Red’s hair, Pennasatucky’s new teeth, Crazy Eyes’..eyes…

If like us you’re pining for those long lost pals, then let us tell you a bit about the real story behind OITNB. Like - is Piper real? Is prison actually like that? And when will it be back on our laptop screens so we can Netflix and Jail once more...? Let us tell you all...

Is Orange Is The New Black at true story?

OITNB was initially *based* on real life events. It’s not a docudrama, but lot of what happens in the show is inspired by an American woman called Piper Kerman’s memoir, which leads us to...

What is Orange Is The New Black based on?

A lot of the crazy shit in OITNB actually did happen to Piper Kerman, and she wrote a book about it called Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison. Published in 2010, it’s all about Piper’s money laundering and drug trafficking conviction and the year she spent in jail as a result.

But how did this privileged American woman end up in federal prison for smuggling narcotics? Well it all started in 1993 when Piper was a 24-year-old Smith College graduate. She fell in with what she’s described as a ‘clique of impossibly stylish and cool lesbians in their mid-30s.’ One of these super cool lesbians was Nora Jansen (real name Catherine Cleary Wolters, who is Alex Vause in the show) who herself was involved with a drug-trafficking ring.

Piper found herself seduced by Nora’s lifestyle and soon started smuggling herself - carrying a total of $10,000 from Chicago to Brussels during her time with Nora. It was ten years before the Feds caught up with her - by which point she was happily living in New York with boyfriend Larry Smith. It was another six years before she found out if she was going to prison or not. I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t like to sit around for six years not knowing if I was going to get banged up or not….

The peeps over at Netflix picked up the show that was made off the back of the book, and bent the hell out of the truth. As Piper herself said in an NBC interview: 'The Netflix series is an adaptation, and there are tremendous liberties. What that means is that when you watch the show, you will see moments of my life leap off the screen, such as Larry Bloom's proposal to Piper Chapman, [which] is not so very different from the way my husband, Larry Smith, proposed to me. There are moments in the very first episode, like when Piper Chapman insults Red, who runs the kitchen with an iron fist — that is actually very closely derived from what's in the book and from my own life. But there are other parts of the show which are tremendous departures and pure fiction.'

Her now hubby Larry Smith (played by Jason Biggs in the show)wrote about his experience for The New York Times in a piece called A Life To Live, This Side Of The Bars.  He wrote of Piper’s experience: 'To say she was freaked out and wondering if I would stick around for the messes sure to come is an understatement. To say that it never once crossed my mind to bail on her is simply a statement of fact.' Cute, huh!?

Also, another fun fact: Piper Kerman is now a totally legit US citizen again, and as well as enjoying the fame and fortune of having Netflix’s no.1 show based on her,  now works as a Communications consultant for non-profits. So things turned out alright.

Is OITNB realistic?

Catherine Cleary Wolters aka sex bomb Alex Vause has been fairly outspoken about how OITNB uses artistic licence. Talking specifically about the massive amount of sex all the inmates have all over the place she said: 'Usually what you would do was have sex in your jail rooms,' she told Vanity Fair upon her own release from prison. 'You’d have sex anywhere you could: the tennis court, the outdoor squash court, or the rake pile. Anyplace! When the guards aren’t around all bets are off. Everyone goes to it!' Wowzers.

And with regards to the reality of life in a US penitentiary, and whether or not it is at all like it’s depicted in the show, well sadly I can’t tell you due to fortunate lack of personal experience but one inmate  did watch the show and review it for the Washington Post.

This is what she said of Red’s rule in the kitchen and the inmates easy access to cooking equipment: 'What, so some crackhead chick with a grudge can throw hot oil on somebody? Or push somebody’s hand into the meat slicer?’

And in general she just wanted to know: Where the fuck are all the guards? Good point...

Did OITNB copy Wentworth?

When you think about it, there are many members of the great and glorious canon that is women-in-prison dramas. Bad Girls. Wentworth. And now OITNB. But did Piper’s story copy that of Wentworth? Well unless she deliberately smuggled money and got caught and inprisonated, all so she could write a book at the end of it (no matter how well she’s done out of it, that’s quite a commitment for even the most creative storyteller) then it’s impossible that OITNB copied Wentworth because it’s based on real life.

Where is OITNB filmed?

The series is set in a fictional prison in Litchfield, New York, which is a real town in upstate New York, but it does not have a federal penitentiary. The series is instead filmed in an old Rockland Children's Psychiatric Center in Rockland County, New York.

When does Orange Is The New Black return?

June 17th. Cannot. Bloody. Wait.

Like this? Then you might also be interested in:

Teen Orange Is The New Black Fan Breaks Into Set, Gets The Litchfield Treatment

All The Best Books From Orange Is The New Black Season Three

Everything You Need To Know About Orange Is The New Black's Ruby Rose

Follow Tabi on Twitter @Tabijgee

Tags: Orange Is The New Black, TV That Matters, TV