Rohan: The post-prison journeys of Piper Kerman and Teresa Giuidice in stark contrast

June 16, 2016

As I set out to write about the fourth season of “Orange Is the New Black,” Netflix’s fictionalized adaptation of Piper Kerman’s best-selling 2010 prison memoir, the review began to morph into more of a tale of two inmates.

It’s not just that “OITNB” fans notoriously hate spoilers, and Netflix, mindful of this, released a long list of things to avoid revealing. It’s also that while previewing the early season four “OITNB” episodes, I also watched the seventh season premiere of Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of New Jersey,” which is largely about Teresa Giudice’s December 2015 release from Connecticut’s Danbury Federal Correctional Institution’s satellite camp. That’s also where Kerman served 11 months of her 13-month sentence (for a decade-old drug-smuggling crime) — and the place that inspired the fictional Litchfield Penitentiary.

Suddenly, the post-prison journeys of Kerman and Giudice stood out in stark contrast.

Kerman, a consultant on the Netflix series, is a member of the board of the New York non-profit Women’s Prison Association and a vocal advocate for changes to our criminal justice system. She does this, she told me in a 2014interview, because she came home from prison “to a safe and stable place to live,” a loving fiancé (now her husband) and a job. “And I had had a lot of good fortune before I was sent to prison and I was extremely conscious of the fact that the vast majority of the women that I had done time with … didn’t have the advantages or good fortune. And I just think on a moral level, you have an obligation to do what you can,” Kerman said.

Although some former Danbury inmates have taken issue with the way the series depicts prison life, especially the comic elements, Kerman, in her consultant role, gives feedback on scripts to series creator Jenji Kohan, who is free to take them or leave them, saidKerman, whose heart seems to be in the right place.

Giudice, who pleaded guilty to fraud, also wrote a best-selling memoir about her time at Danbury. In “Turning the Tables: From Housewife to Inmate and Back Again,” Giudice described some unappetizing conditions at Danbury, but mostly told titillating tales (about, for example, witnessing others having sexual hookups in her suite, which she dubbed “the Boom Boom Room”). On Wednesday, Beatrice Codianni, a former Danbury inmate who’s now managing editor of the national prison news and information website Reentry Central, said she had not read Giudice’s book, “but I do know that some of the women at the camp were outraged with her because they said that Teresa said things in the book that weren’t factual.”

In October 2014, Codianni expressed hope that Giudice, upon her release, would become a “life coach” to other inmates. “Some people, like Martha Stewart, they walk out and they just put it all behind them like it never happened,” said Codianni, who spent 6½ years at the FCI Danbury minimum-security camp and appeared in Kerman’s memoir. “Teresa’s a feisty Italian like me, and I hope that she … becomes a life coach to people facing prison time, or people who got out, [showing them] that there is life after prison.”

But will that happen? James Leonard, her attorney, responded to that question on Wednesday, texting, “Teresa is very much interested in using her voice and her experience to help other incarcerated women, particularly those with children. This is something I could see her getting involved with down the road.”

If the “RHONJ” season seven opener is an indication, though, altruism is not likely.

“It felt like a bad dream, all of it,” Teresa says in the episode, in a tone that suggests she’d rather not look back (unless, perhaps, there’s money to be gained by doing so).

“RHONJ” filmed at some of her book signings, so we’re bound to see that. But will Giudice take the opportunity to delve more deeply into any serious prison issues, or just focus on how much her fans still adore her?

The Giudices cannot avoid the prison topic — Joe reported in March to New Jersey’s Fort Dix Federal Correctional Institution, and it’s likely his wife’s life as a single mother will be front and center this season — but will there be a wider view of how incarceration may have changed her? In her book, Giudice described having a spiritual awakening, but clips from future “RHONJ” episodes show the same kind of shouting matches that went on before Giudice went away.

Intriguingly, the new season of “Orange Is the New Black” features a celebrity inmate — daytime cooking-show host Judy King (Blair Brown), who was found guilty of tax evasion last season. The Litchfield inmates were able to follow her sentencing, which was televised, and King arrived at Litchfield to self-surrender, but no one was available to process her.

Despite the fact that King’s a charming Southerner, she’s supposedly based on Stewart, who was actually incarcerated at FPC Alderson, a minimum-security federal prison camp in West Virginia. But let’s not forget that Giudice also wrote three best-selling cookbooks.

The opening episode also follows up on other things that happened in last season’s final episode, when the inmates managed to get through a fence to frolic in the lake beyond. Meanwhile, there was a cliffhanger involving Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) — Piper Chapman’s on-again-off-again lover and the one who lured Chapman into a criminal endeavor. She was in Litchfield’s greenhouse, being cornered by a correctional officer, Aydin, who had been an enforcer for the revenge-minded drug kingpin Vause testified against.

“OITNB” gets off to a strong start, with story lines that are dramatically compelling, though some developments strain credulity. As the cast continues to grow, it becomes more clear that Chapman (Taylor Schilling) — inspired by Kerman — not only is no longer the central focus, but she’s one of the least interesting characters. Her elevated stature within the prison, because of the business she started selling used panties to people outside of Litchfield (with the outside help of her brother, Cal), doesn’t even help much. Far more fun to watch are ever-fascinating inmates like “Red” Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew), Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (Uzo Aduba), Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox) and paranoid Lolly Whitehill (Lori Petty), who has a big role this season, at least early on.

And then there’s Judy King, who officially becomes an inmate and gets preferential treatment. This causes resentment among the inmates, who are also facing seriously overcrowded conditions with an influx of new inmates and are dealing with and overseen by inexperienced guards. When correctional officer Sam Healy (Michael Harney) balks at the favoritism, Warden Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow) overrules him, saying, “In half a year, she’ll be a rich celebrity again with enough money and power to sue us.”

The big question: Will she use all that money and power to make a difference in the lives of those she’ll leave behind — or simply return to her old life and pretend that Litchfield was a passing nightmare?