Last summer, Netflix started streaming the original series Orange Is the New Black, which chronicles uptight WASP Piper Chapman’s stint in federal prison for her role as a slightly unwitting drug mule. The dramedy’s cast of incarcerated characters and portrayal of prison politics were at turns hilarious and tragic. I was immediately hooked.
A handful of episodes into my binge on Piper’s exploits, I felt pretty good about my chances in the joint. My diplomatic nature would help me settle disputes between the various larcenists and embezzlers in my midst, and if I had to get tougher, drinking coffee brewed in the clink kitchen would no doubt supply me with the perfect step-off scowl. Done.
A few editors and I were discussing the show one day and how we might fare if faced with Piper’s situation. “I just worry that it glamorizes prison too much,” said executive editor and fellow OITNB addict Megan Fernandez. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, I thought. For all my bravado, I don’t actually want to get thrown in the slammer!
But Fernandez had a right to be sensitive. At the time, she was deep into reporting her compelling story on Indiana exoneree Kristine Bunch. For Bunch, prison was not hypothetical. It was her life—unjustly, she maintains—for more than 16 years before she was able to gather enough evidence, with the help of Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, to convince appellate judges she had been wrongly imprisoned for arson and the murder of her son. After being released in August 2012, Bunch gave Fernandez exclusive access as she grappled with life outside of the Indiana Women’s Prison.
The result is an extraordinary, goosebump-inducing account of Bunch’s dogged fight to prove her innocence and the messy, complicated aftermath of her release. I encourage you to read the story, and as you do, consider this: The state of Indiana currently does more to help those with a criminal record to reenter society than it does the wrongly convicted. That lack of guidance or restitution is a shame—and leaves exonerees like Bunch struggling to feel free, even after being freed.
Amanda Heckert is the editor-in-chief of Indianapolis Monthly.
This article appeared in the January 2014 issue.