Books, California Department of Corrections, Female Offenders, fiction, Latinas, Strong Women, Women in Prison

Meet My Characters: Orange is Not the New Black

Piper, main character in Orange is the New Black, Netflix series

When people ask me “What’s your novel about,” I usually say it’s a teenaged Orange is the New Black –the Netflix version, not the book- featuring a naive 17 year old mother who’s an immigrant.

I’ve been asked, by YA author Evelyne Holingue, to talk about the characters in my YA novel. Her novel, TRAPPED IN PARIS, took me on an adventure through the streets of Paris.Evelyne continues to take me on an exciting jaunt  through her blog and now through the Meet My Character blog tour.

I’m so glad she asked me to join the tour.

In case anyone wonders, I began writing this novel in 2008 before OITNB was published. I wrote it based on my 28 years experience working within the California Department of Corrections.

Now, I’d like you to meet some of the characters in my novel:

1. What is the name of your character (s)? Is he/she fictional or a historic person?

Juana Maria Ivanov is the fictional main character. She frequently has a look on her face just like Piper in the photo above. The similarities end there, but the description gives people a quick picture.

Juana is younger, Mexican, and without Piper’s resources or language skills. And, she is not like the Latinas featured in OITNB.

The antagonist in my story is Jester, who is one of the gang leaders. Juana’s friends are two outsiders, one an idealistic protestor and the other a pastor’s daughter.

2. When and where is the story set?

The story is set within the twelve foot chain link fences of a correctional facility in California in the late 1980’s. This was the time of “Lock ‘Em Up,” laws and when there was little recourse or rights for teenagers in the criminal justice system. Sentencing laws and due process were different for young men and women under the age of 18 years old.

3. What should we know about him/her?

Sweet, helpful and unintentionally funny, Juana is basically an optimist. Sometimes these qualities don’t serve her. She thought she was going to be part of the American dream when she married her first sweetheart, nineteen year old Alek Ivanov, a first generation Russian American that she met while working in a border town. When she has her baby, they move to Los Angeles  where  she learns that he is abusive, more so when he is under the influence of alcohol.

4. What is the main conflict? 

After a beating, Juana runs away and takes her baby to her sister. When she returns she is arrested for Alek’s death, convicted of manslaughter and given a six year sentence. She is heartbroken over his death and leaving her baby, who she is certain will forget her. She desperately wants correctional staff to believe that she didn’t leave her husband to die, but she has no evidence except her word that he was alive when she ran away.When she finds out that her sister can no longer care for her baby and her mother-in-law files for custody, she has to find a way to keep her child.

5. What is the personal goal of the character?

Figuring out how to survive prison, learning whom to trust, how to find help and how to stay strong are Juana’s goals.

6. Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?

STONG WOMEN GROW HERE is the working title of this fictional novel. To download a free 17 page excerpt you can use this link. SWGH is a quarterfinalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest. Semifinals are in late June 2014.

7. When can we expect the book to be published?

There’s no definite answer on this one. If the story is picked up by Amazon it could be published within a year. If it’s not a finalist, I hope to find an agent to represent my novel.


Now I’m tagging Jennifer J. Chow, author of the award winning, The 228 Legacy, who is now typing away on her next novel.

Make sure you check out Jennifer’s post on June 16, 2014.

She has an adorable protagonist and I hope you will stop by to read about her story.


Books, Female Offenders, Memoir, Netflix series, Orange is the New Black, Piper Kerman, Television shows on prison, Women in Prison, Writing

Orange is the New Black-Redux

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A couple of years ago a friend suggested I read the memoir, ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, when she found out my novel in progress (STRONG WOMEN GROW HERE) is about a young woman in prison. 

Aside from the clever title, I didn’t find much to pay attention to when I read the first few chapters. Never finished the book. 

OITNB received an average rating of 3.5, on Amazon, by 189 reviewers. 

One reviewer put it this way:

“The book could have easily been condensed to nine pages:

Page 1 — I’m blonde.
Page 2 — I’m white.
Page 3 — I’m privileged.
Page 4 — I went to Smith.
Page 5 — I’m better than you.
Page 6 — I’m well liked.
Page 7 — I can’t believe I am in prison.
Page 8 — I need to mention again that I am white, blonde and went to Smith.
Page 9 — I deserve a movie option on my book.”

The protagonist in my novel has none of these privileges. She is seventeen, dark haired, an immigrant, uneducated, has a baby, was a wife, and innocent (well, almost).

My daughter is an OITNB devotee and described the Netflix series in much more favorable terms than the book reviewers on Amazon or what I recalled in the memoir. 

This peaked my interest as usually the book is better than the screen version.

So last night I decided to watch OITNB and find out how an  ‘average’ memoir ended up receiving the coveted movie option (Page 9).

I didn’t intend to watch past the first episode, but I was pulled into the story so quickly that I had to watch more. I spent six hours watching six episodes on my Kindle Fire and would have watched the seventh episode, but I had a neck ache.

So how is it that this memoir by Piper Kerman found its way to become a Netflix series?

Created by WEEDS writer Jenji Kohan, she and writer Marco Ramirez converted Kerman’s novel into dramedy, blending dramatic moments with comedy. The novel became a launching pad for television writers who took the characters and made us care about them enough to want to know what happens to them next. It is OISTNB redux.

The character’s backstories, intermingled throughout the episodes, show us their motivations, what drives them, their truths, and ultimately we care about them enough to watch an episode after episode. 

OITNB-the Netflix version, does what readers want from a great book. 

Writers have to make the reader care enough about the characters in the story to keep reading. 

Readers want to see how or if the character changes and what is the outcome. It doesn’t matter too much if they are in prison or in an English countryside. 

What matters is whether the writer can sweep the reader into the story to the end. There is no doubt that the Netflix series does just that. 

Children of incarcerated, Female Offenders, Get on the Bus Program, Mother's Day, Parenting, Women in Prison

What I Learned in Prison: Women in Front & Behind Bars #9

Mother’s Day is coming soon. The date makes me remember the young women in our facility. They became more anxious the closer Mother’s Day came. Several of them had children and most would not see them on that day. 

                  Anger, depression, and isolation was usually the result for  these young mothers.

California has the largest female prison population in the United States, almost 7,000 women. Nearly 80% of them are parents. Statistics aren’t kept on children, but if we say each offender has two to three children it can be approximated that close to 15,000 children are without mothers. Of these approximately 25% are in foster care, with the majority remaining with grandmothers and relatives.* The numbers are much higher if jails are included.

According to the Women’s Prison & Home Association, Inc.:

                  Children of offenders are five times more likely than their peers to end up in prison themselves.  

“One in 10 will have been incarcerated before reaching adulthood.” Surely the statistics on parent-child bonding, trauma, detachment disorders, and depression are high for these children.

In California three prisons house women: Central California’s Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, CA,  Valley State Prison, also in Chowchilla-Northern California, and houses more than 5,350 women. The southern area facility, California Institute for Women in Corona, CA houses 1,600 women. Ventura Youth Correctional Facility also houses female offenders under 21 years old. This is in Camarillo, California and at one time had close to 400 young women. 

Research from the Bureau of Justice suggests: 

           …visitation significantly increases parent-child attachment,however more than half of incarcerated women are more than 100 miles away from their children. 

There are other states, like Ohio, Washington, Illinois, Indiana, New York and Albama, which do a far better job at visitation and family reunification. Countries such as Mexico and Germany have prison nurseries, enhanced visitation, and mother-child programs. 

Research shows that women and children in these programs do much better than without the mother-child contact. There are two programs in California that seek to assist reunification through visitation:

The “Get on the Bus” annual trip from Southern California. The trip takes place close to Mother’s and Father’s Day. They have been doing this volunteer work for 12 years when they made one trip, on one bus, with 17 children. It is a four hour drive from Los Angeles to Chowchilla. For ways to help children visit through this program, here is their website. You can help in any number of ways.

The Chowchilla Family Express travels once a week from different major cities. Several churches sponsor the trips providing for meals and expenses. This program is the funded by The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. When I went to the website I found, “(CFE)…is temporarily closed until the state contract is awarded.” 

All of this boils down to this: 

California has the most female offenders, with  a quarter of their children in foster care, who live far away without regular visitation.  

I know and I agree that these women are responsible for their own behavior and that punishment is part of the criminal justice system. So why should we care?

We should care because innocent children pay for the sins of their mothers. They will suffer through abandonment issues, detachment disorders, and various other traumas that affect their schooling, future relationships, and put them at risk for incarceration themselves. 

What can you do? 

  • Check to see if your state has any programs such as “Get on the Bus,” visitation. 
  • Lobby and press for more community based residential parenting programs. They are much cheaper than prisons. (There is one three miles away from me and we haven’t had any problems) . 
  • Get your church involved or create a school project that will raise money for reunification trips. 
  • If you have a transition house in your area, for female offenders or parolees, perhaps they can use children’s clothes or toys. 
  • Participate in Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree project. 
  • Donate to Girl Scouts Beyond Bars Program.
  • If you know someone who is high risk for incarceration, reach out to her or put her in contact with a community program that can intervene before she loses her children.

Every mother should be able to see their children on Mother’s Day.

*Women in Prison Project 2010

Faith, Family, Kids, Parenting, stay at home moms, Women in Prison, Working moms

What I Learned in Prison:Women in Front and Behind Bars #8

by spaceodissy via creative commons

Jeannine, an escapee from corporate life, wrote a guest post for the blog “My Name is Not Bob.” After the birth of her baby she suffered postpartum depression, returned to work, and dealt with the increasing demands of her job. A few years later and after upping her medication to levels the doctor balked at, the doctor asked, “Is this what you really want.” Jeannine decided it was not and quit her job. Find Jeannine’s blog and read some of her other insightful posts. 

After I read her post I reflected on my own dilemmas as a working (outside the home) mother. One of the decisions I made was to delay having kids until I received a promotion and had a regular day shift. For the promotion I had to relocate to another correctional facility. Not only was my husband and I away from family, but we didn’t know a soul in this new urban area.Unknown at the time, was that I was pregnant. If I had known, I wouldn’t have accepted the promotion to Investigator. In the prison the investigator works to solve alleged major disciplinary infractions: stabbings, narcotics, weapons, riots. 

Investigators are called into a scene as soon as the incident is cleared. It can be pretty scary walking prison grounds in the dark and worse going into housing units where a stabbing just occurred. In those days (twenty five years ago) we didn’t have  masks, gloves, or kits a la CSI. It was the ’80’s and the height of AIDS epidemic. 

       I, and women in my situation, just had to deal with it and move on. There wasn’t any sympathy about  pregnancy.

Several scenarios clouded my head about catching a disease or becoming injured while performing my job. My husband wanted us to pack up and go home if I couldn’t get a desk job. I was faced with quitting after five years in a career I loved. If I quit, my husband’s job couldn’t support us. 

               What I learned from working in prison was not to whine, blame or act entitled with supervisors. 

 If I could deal with walking into a bloodied cell, I could talk to my new boss about my feelings of safety during my pregnancy. But first I had to think of a solution for the problem I’d be presenting to him, be direct, and willing to hear what I didn’t want to hear. The plan was to have on duty supervisors take pictures of crime scenes, I’d train them even if it was on my own time. It worked, I’d be behind a desk for the next three months. 

After the baby I went through the depression of the impending return to work. I’d never had anxiety bouts before but I had them now. It seemed that guilt overshadowed every moment, awake or asleep. I prayed through those times and tried to shake it off. How dare I want to go back to work? How dare I leave a little baby with a stranger? It wasn’t just me hearing that in my mind, a few male staff made the remarks too.

                                                    Quit, forget this work, it’s not for women anyway

I decide to ask for three more months off of work. To be off any longer than six months meant I’d have to return to the Academy to re-qualify as a Peace Officer. That would take me eight hours away from home for weeks.

Before I had to return to work, my husband was laid off from his job. It was a blessing. He became a stay at home dad for almost a year before he found another job. By that time I was able to transfer back to our home town and we were able to find a wonderful woman to come to our home each day. I felt less guilty that I didn’t have to take the baby out and that I could depend on my mother to help out in a pinch.

 It worked out but I wouldn’t want to go through that again and I didn’t for another four years. The desire to have another child outweighed the memories of my anxieties with the work dilemma. Again, I was blessed to finagle something my colleagues said would never work: becoming a part time Parole Agent. The warden said if I found another part-timer he’d okay the ‘experiment’ for one year. I did and I was happy, the other mother happy, and our the kids happy.

And that’s the way it went, a patchwork of helping hands, prayer, timing and accommodating supervisors. A few years later I had my last child, kind of late in the game. Years later I divorced and it didn’t make life any easier, but we both tried our best for the kids.

After my retirement (peace officers can retire at 50) I became a single stay at home mom with two kids in high school. I also picked up old journals I had written through the years and decided to take some writing classes, try my hand writing a family history, and then fiction. And although I may regret some of the choices I made, I love every minute of this time in my mom life. 

If you work outside the home how have you dealt with feelings of guilt? What’s your patchwork of helping hands?