Once upon a time (1993) in a land far, far away (Belgium), twenty-four-year-old blond-haired Piper Kerman helped her girlfriend smuggle drug money through customs in Brussels. Okay, not all fairy tales begin this way (most Dand wisney princesses just smuggle bluebirds in their hair), but that's how this story begins.
After graduating from Smith College, Piper really started to feel her upper-middle-class malaise, and she "longed to experience, experiment, investigate" (1.11). Piper is wined and dined (well, margarita'd and scotch'd) by Nora Jansen, a hip lesbian with connections to a heroin-smuggling enterprise.
Drug smuggling always starts off small. One minute you're cat-sitting for your sort-of-girlfriend's cats Edith and Dum-Dum, and the ext thing you know you're jumping off waterfalls in Bali and carrying a suitcase full of dollars (ten thousand of them) into Belgium. Piper's little experiment comes to a close in Switzerland. She mopes around watching The Piano (she's totally Holly Hunter while Nora is obviously Harvey Keitel), and she realizes that she's just a pawn in Nora's drug game.
To make matters worse for poor, globe-trotting, money-isn't-an-object Piper, someone in Zurich tells her "we have a terrible heroin problem here. You see people just lying in the streets, out of it" (1.63). She realizes that she is contributing to the problem, so she leaves the glamorous drug trade behind. And drugs were never a problem for anyone ever again. The end.
Okay, not so fast. Piper returns to the U.S., moves to San Francisco, and puts both her money-laundering and lesbian past behind her. She meets a man named Larry, falls in love with him, and moves to New York, where they're happy and working in the media. One fine day, Piper's off producing television and talking to Bruce Jenner and stuff when Customs Agents indict her on charges of drug smuggling and money laundering.
Piper decides to plead guilty to avoid the maximum sentence of over a decade in prison. She gets sentenced to eighteen months in the federal pokey in Danbury, Connecticut. Because the U.S. Justice system is sometimes slower than waiting for the new season of Orange is the New Black to debut, she has to wait five years before she actually goes there. By that time, she's studied up with books from Amazon and said goodbye to all her friends and family. Hey, at least she's resourceful, and, unlike most people who go to jail, she has the luxury of time to prepare for it.
In jail, Piper becomes prisoner #11187-424, but that's a mouthful, so most people just call her Kerman. That's how prison works: last name basis. While prison is far from pleasant, it's not as bad as you might think—some might even say it beats going to a Keith Urban concert. Probably not Nicole Kidman, though. But anyway.
Kerman fits in surprisingly well. Her education allows her to help other inmates write furlough requests and study for their GEDs, and she works hard at her labor-intensive prison jobs—electric work, construction. And she mostly stays out of trouble, aside from one verbal altercation at the salad bar that's probably no worse than anything that happens during the early bird special at Ruby Tuesday on a weekly basis.
The key to Piper's prison success is making friends. She makes the right friends: the women who help and support her and whom she helps and supports in return. Even though the prison isn't the place full of vile lesbian rapists that some (super prejudiced) people had led her to believe, there are still women who try to take advantage of any kindness they can get, but Piper is savvy enough to not fall victim to them.
While in prison, Piper comes to a revelation: "I had helped these terrible things happen" (12.11). Gee, ya think? At first, she acts like she's different from the addicts and dealers who are in prison with her, and she is—she's worse. She pretty much held the cell door open for these women when she was a cog in Nora's heroin machine. It's easy to think your actions don't affect others when you're distant from them, but when Piper is right in the thick of it, she sees the consequences of her actions, and she feels badly for what she did.
This revelation oddly makes Kerman feel lighter, not heavier. When she manages to really look at herself in the warden's bathroom mirror, she says, "I resembled the girl who had jumped off that waterfall more closely than I had in years" (12.79). Maybe she means that she has regained some of her youthful enthusiasm that was lost in the years of fearing prison. She decides to use this renewed energy in a constructive way, and when Piper gets out of prison, she devotes herself to prison reform.