Progressive Prison Project
Ex-Cons Are The New Top Chefs?
By Jeff Grant
Why I’m Proud of Piper Kerman,
Author of Orange Is The New Black
I have to admit that when Piper Kerman came to the Greenwich Public Library in May 2010 to promote her book, Orange Is The New Black, I didn’t go to see her speak.
How could I? Piper’s story hit a little too close to home for me – and for my family. With some time and distance though, I’ve come to realize how proud I am of Piper.
Last evening was the LA screening of Orange Is The New Black, the original series premiering on Netflix from ‘Weeds’ creator Jenji Kohan – it is based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of her year spent in a woman’s Federal prison. The series’ trailer is currently available on YouTube.
When I first reviewed the trailer I found it compelling in a lot of ways – mostly because it instantly brought me back to my own fourteen month incarceration in Allenwood LCSI in White Deer, Pennsylvania without most of the high drama force-fed us by so-called “reality” and other television series such as Oz, Prison Break and Lockdown, to name a few. Instead, at least from this snippet, I found it pretty real. That is – Not Pretty & Real. Kudos to Piper and to Netflix.
I can tell you that I am always on fraud alert – ever vigilant and on patrol for the huckster looking to make a buck in this sector where it is all too easy to prey upon the vulnerabilities of people who are in great need at a critical junction in their lives. I was in the audience at The Nantucket Project 2012, at which Jack Abramoff spoke, only then a few months out of prison. Most agreed that something just didn’t seem right – that Jack just hadn’t yet paid his dues. That is, how interesting or important could his rise/fall/redemption story be without taking the time to rebuild his life, to dedicating his life to helping others, and to having a real redemption story to tell?
Through different eyes, I was able to watch the HBO documentary Fall To Grace, about former Senator Jim McGreevey’s resignation in disgrace from the US Senate – and his new life to enlightenment in attending Divinity School, becoming an Episcopal Priest and through service. McGreevey does not look for easy answers, “…at some point in time when we’re out on the street and no one is watching, the question is … Will we turn over our will to unhealthy cravings? Or will we stay in a godly place and do what we are meant to do? And that’s always the challenge. That’s always the challenge.” In many ways, Jim and I are on the same page.
The manuscript package is being prepared this week for my own recovery memoir/prison story – Last Stop Babylon: The Art of Surviving Prison. It only dawns on me in proofing the drafts how out of sync it is with the ministry work I am doing now. Sure, I must have some kind of cool recovery/prison story – why else would Tom Scott and Kate Brosnan have invited me as a Main Stage presenter to The Nantucket Project 2013? Although I think it is essential to get the recovery and prison-survival story out that is contained in book one, I can’t help but think that, at least for me, the most important part is always in the work after prison. In the redemption story. A lot of it is contained in book one, but a lot of it is unfolding even as we speak and can’t and won’t get written about until later?
Ex-Cons Are The New Top Chefs? This brings us back to Piper Kerman – it would be so easy for critics to take potshots at Piper and consider her a “new top chef”, and I suspect that some will as soon as they see her in her little black dress promoting her book and her new series on Netflix. Let me set the record straight– this is Piper’s own reentry from prison: right here and right now. In a world with the deck stacked against ex-offenders getting jobs and getting a break, I will go to the mat to defend Piper – and anyone like her. She is attempting her second chance in life – on her own terms – and living the dream dreamt by every person inside prison.
Nothing in the world could make me prouder.
Jeff Grant, JD, M Div
Social Ethicist, Author
Director, Progressive Prison Project
Director of Prison Ministries
First Baptist Church of Bridgeport
126 Washington Avenue, 1st Fl.
Bridgeport, Connecticut 06604