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March 9, 2010

The Mistake That Nearly Cost Me Everything

piper kerman and husband

Piper Kerman and her husband, Larry Smith.

Photo Credit: Rebecca Greenfield

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That morning was the beginning of a long, torturous expedition through the labyrinth of the U.S. criminal justice system. Confronted with the end of my life as I knew it, I closed myself off, telling myself that I would have to figure out a solution on my own. But I wasn't alone — my family and my unsuspecting boyfriend came along for the miserable ride. My father arrived in New York, and we drove an excruciating four hours up to New England for an emergency family meeting at my grandparents' home. I sat in their living room rigid with shame while they questioned me for hours. What I had done was almost totally beyond their comprehension.

Incredibly, my family said they loved me and would help me. Still, they doubted that a "nice blonde lady" like me could ever end up in prison. But my lawyer, referred to me by the biggest big-shot lawyer I knew, quickly impressed upon us the severity of my situation. My indictment in federal court for criminal conspiracy to import heroin had been triggered by the collapse of my ex-lover's drug-smuggling operation. Nora was in custody, pointing fingers and naming names. Gently but firmly, my lawyer explained that if I wished to go to trial and fight the conspiracy charge, I would be one of the best defendants he had ever worked with, sympathetic and with a story to tell; but if I lost, I risked the maximum sentence, well over a decade in prison. If I pleaded guilty, make no mistake, I was going to prison under mandatory minimum sentencing beyond any judge's control, but for a much shorter time. There were some agonizing conversations with Larry and my still-reeling family before I chose the latter.

In October 1998, with Larry looking on, I stood tall, if pale, in my best suit in Chicago's federal court building and choked out three words that sealed my fate: "Guilty, Your Honor." But shortly after, my date with prison was postponed indefinitely after Alaji, the West African drug kingpin, was arrested in London and the U.S. tried to extradite him to stand trial. The Feds wanted me in street clothes, not an orange jumpsuit, to testify against him. There was no end in sight.

I spent the next five years under federal supervision, reporting monthly to my "pretrial supervisor," an earnest young woman with an exuberantly curly mullet and an office in the federal court building in Manhattan. Every now and then I was drug-tested — I always tested clean. My predicament remained a secret from almost everyone I knew — friends, colleagues, employers. I felt that I just had to gut it out quietly. My friends who did know were mercifully quiet on the subject as the years dragged on.

I worked hard at forgetting what loomed ahead, pouring my energies into exploring New York with Larry and our friends. I needed money to pay my huge, ongoing legal fees, so I worked as an online creative director with clients my hipster colleagues found unpalatable: big telecom and petrochemical firms, shadowy holding companies. With folks who knew nothing of my criminal secret and looming imprisonment, I was simply not quite myself — pleasant, but aloof, distant. Somewhere on the horizon was coming devastation, the arrival of Cossacks and hostile Indians.

As the years passed, my family began to believe that I would be miraculously spared. But never for a minute did I allow myself to indulge in that fantasy — I knew that I would go to prison. But the revelation was that my family and Larry still loved me despite my massive fuckup; that my friends who knew my situation never turned away from me; and that I could still function in the world professionally and socially, despite having ostensibly ruined my life. I began to grow less fearful about my future, my prospects for happiness, and even about prison.

Ultimately, Britain declined to extradite Alaji to America and, instead, set him free. Finally, more than five years after I pleaded guilty, the U.S. Attorney in Chicago was willing to move forward with my case. To prepare for my sentencing, I wrote a personal statement to the court and broke my silence with more friends and coworkers, asking them to write letters to the judge vouching for my character. It was an incredibly humbling experience to approach people I had known for years, confess my situation, and ask for their help. I had steeled myself for rejection, knowing that it would be perfectly reasonable for someone to decline on any number of grounds. Instead, I was overwhelmed by kindness and cried over every letter, whether it described my childhood, my friendships, or my work ethic. Each person strived to convey what they thought was important and great about me, which flew in the face of how I felt: profoundly unworthy.

Finally my sentencing date drew near. Larry and I again flew to Chicago where we hoped for a shorter sentence in light of the lengthy delay. At the advice of my lawyer, I wore a skirt suit from the 1950s that I had won on eBay, cream with a soft blue windowpane check, very country club. "We want the judge to be reminded of his own daughter or niece when he looks at you," my lawyer said.

On December 8, 2003, I stood in front of Judge Charles Norgle with a small group of my family and friends sitting behind me in the courtroom. Before he handed down my sentence, I made a statement. "Your Honor, more than a decade ago I made bad decisions, on both a practical and a moral level. I acted selfishly, without regard for others. I am prepared to face the consequences of my actions and accept whatever punishment the court decides upon. I am truly sorry for all the harm I have caused to others."

I was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison, and I could hear Larry, my parents, and my friend Kristen crying behind me. We returned to New York where the wait continued, this time for my prison assignment. It felt oddly like waiting for my college acceptance letter — I hope I get into Danbury in Connecticut! The next closest federal women's prison was in West Virginia, 500 miles away. When the thin envelope arrived from the federal marshals a few weeks after my sentencing, telling me to report to the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury on February 4, 2004, my relief was overwhelming.

I tried to get my affairs in order, preparing to vanish for over a year. I had already read the books on Amazon about surviving prison, but they were written for men. About a week before I was to report, Larry and I met a small group of good friends at a bar for a very impromptu going-away. We had a good time — shot pool, told stories, drank tequila. Night turned into morning, and finally one friend had to say good-bye. And as I hugged him as hard and relentlessly as only a girl drunk on tequila can, it sank in on me that this was really good-bye. I didn't know when I would see any of my friends again or what I would be like when I did. And I started to cry. I had never wept in front of anyone but Larry. But now I cried, and then my friends started to cry. We must have looked like lunatics, sitting in an East Village bar at 3 in the morning, sobbing.

On February 4, 2004, more than a decade after I had committed my crime, Larry drove me to the women's prison in Danbury. We had spent the previous night at home; Larry had cooked me an elaborate dinner, and then we curled up in a ball on our bed, crying. Now we were heading much too quickly through a drab February morning toward the unknown. As we made a right onto the federal reservation and up a hill to the parking lot, a hulking building with a vicious-looking triple-layer razor-wire fence loomed. If that was minimum security, I was fucked. Almost immediately, a white pickup with police lights on its roof pulled in after us. I rolled down my window. "There's no visiting today," the officer told me. I stuck my chin out, defiance covering my fear. "I'm here to surrender."

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