This Woman Led the Latin Kings and Lived 'Orange Is the New Black'

We spoke with Beatrice Codianni, a former inmate turned criminal justice advocate, about the realities of motherhood in prison, the show, and what Piper Kerman was like in jail.

Delaney Nolan

Delaney Nolan

Beatrice Codianni (third from left) at Danbury FCI with three fellow inmates. All photos courtesy of Beatrice Codianni

Beatrice Codianni did time in Danbury Federal Correctional Institute, the real-life prison of Orange Is the New Black fame. Whereas Piper Kerman, the subject of the show, was sentenced to 13 months, Codianni received 17 years for racketeering charges. And unlike Piper, since her release in 2009, she has not published a book or walked a Netflix-red carpet. Instead, she's worked as an advocate for criminal justice reform and as the managing editor of Reentry Central, a news site for criminal justice issues. She also co-founded Real Women Real Voices, a group of women from Danbury dedicated to raising awareness among the public about the realities of prison.

Codianni landed in Danbury in 1994 thanks to her involvement with the Latin Kings, one of the largest street gangs in the US. She's not Latina, but she contacted the co-founder of the Connecticut chapter after they helped her oldest son quit heroin. She eventually became a leader, serving on their board of directors. Over time, her role within the Latin Kings led to charges that she profited from their drug sales and that she ordered an attack on a rival drug dealer.

Codianni on her 50th birthday at Danbury FCI

While in Danbury, Codianni met Piper, along with several other inmates who were later portrayed in the book and popular television series—including the real-life Nun, Crazy Eyes, Red (really Pop), and Yoga Jones (really Yoga Janet, who, Codianni said, "commented that the actor that portrays her is a poor yoga instructor"). At Danbury, Cordianni volunteered with literacy and AIDS education programs. She says she was often who women came to when they needed help addressing problems with the administration. In the 90s, she brought about a lawsuit that attempted to give women with a history of abuse the right to be exempt from cross-gender pat searches.

Although Cordianni used her time in prison to be a conduit for change, it still took a great toll on her life, especially in regards to her family. The fathers of two of her children lost their lives to violence. Her middle son, then an auto mechanic, was forced to take in her youngest son, who had dropped out of school. It's familial issues like these that typify the new season of Orange Is the New Black. The series opens on Mother's Day, and motherhood behind bars is a recurring theme throughout the season.

Last week I spoke over Skype with Codianni about her life before and during Danbury and how it compared to the fiction portrayed on Orange Is the New Black. We also touched on what it's like raising a kids when you're locked up and the institutional dysfunctions of the modern penal system. Here's what she had to say.

VICE: In her book, Piper Kerman describes you as a "former 1960s radical intellectual who'd gotten involved in gang activity at a pretty high regional level."
Beatrice Codianni: Yes, that's accurate. I've been a political activist all my life. I've gotten involved in the Gulf, anti-war, anti-racism—all kinds of activities. So I became a member of the Latin Kings, not because it was a group of drug dealers and violent people, but because the Latino kids in my neighborhood were committing suicide and getting arrested and getting jacked up by the police for no reason, and some of these kids were friends of my son.

What was your day-to-day life like when you were a part of the Latin Kings?
My day-to-day was trying to diffuse wars. I was the mediator between the Latin Kings and other organizations that were fighting. I would go to meetings with the heads of the organizations, and because I was a woman, I think, I made more headway because I didn't come with that macho posturing. I mediated. We'd meet at a park or a restaurant or somewhere neutral. I knew the leaders of some of the other organizations and they came to trust me and I came to somewhat trust them, and I actually stopped bloodbaths.

I did these things, and I was accused of setting up hits on people. I'm still denying that I sent anybody to break somebody's legs, to shoot them. That wasn't me. I was a mother first and I almost lost my son to a violent store robbery. I would never put a mother in the place that I was in. Never.

When you first got to Danbury, what was the first thing that struck you?
I thought, I'm going to spend the rest of my life here, because I didn't know what my sentence was going to be. Then I saw the male guards who were very, very down on women.

Codianni with her husband Aldo in 1967. She was pregnant with her son, Andrew, at the time

On the show, the corrections officer Mendez gropes, harasses, and intimidates the women. Do you think Mendez is based on a real CO?
Mendez is based on several people. He's a combination of several officers who were very nasty, very crazy.

One of the real people that Mendez is based on, you would see him, when we were locked in, standing up against a wall with his hands spread out, walking sideways, like he thought that people were out to get him. He would climb on the roof of the camp to look for contraband. He was really out there looking for, like, explosives or something, instead of somebody's chilaquile that they threw out from the kitchen.

There was another officer who, if somebody was not in place or moved during count, came back to the dorm and threw their mattresses off the bed, knocked their lockers down. And as far as being very, very, violent or expressing anger—that happened.

Mendez isn't just violent, he also has sex with his inmates?
There were also officers who had sexual relationships. They're two different groups—certain officers who might not be known for being violent, were known for having sex. Mendez portrays them both.

Sexual relations between a staff member and woman in prison usually took place after women were locked in for the night. A staff member would ask a woman to mop the back area after lights out. Of course, that wasn't what the woman was doing.

Were there instances of harassment or sexual intimidation?
Yes! Women were groped by COs. When I was at the FCI [federal correction institute], I filed a lawsuit to be exempt from cross-gender pat searches. I went to court and gave a list of over 25 instances where COs were "walked off" the job for having an inappropriate sexual relationship with a woman who was incarcerated.

Sexual relations between a staff member and woman in prison usually took place after women were locked in for the night. A staff member would ask a woman to mop the back area after lights out. Of course, that wasn't what the woman was doing. At the camp, one CO had a woman go outside supposedly to pick up trash after the other women were in bed. Women in a relationship with a CO would generally stand in the officer's office for hours and talk. Both male and female staff members had relationships with women.

The women are in a very vulnerable position when they're incarcerated, and some COs are predators. They seek these women out for sexual relationships. I've also seen women who use the guards' sexual predatory nature to get out of prison. But the majority of the time, the women feel that it's going to make them feel like they're not in prison—on the other hand, it's forced. It's not really consensual.

I'm surprised to hear you say that some women were actually able to lessen their sentence by getting in sexual relationships?
There are women who are not serving a lot of time, and they know that if they provide evidence that a CO is dirty and exploiting women or using them in a sexual way, and testifies against that officer, they can get a sentence reduction. That's happened. Because most of the women are in there for nonviolent drug charges, and under the state's mandatory minimum sentence, they're probably in for years, decades. They want to be with their families, they want to see their children graduate from high school, and they'll do what they have to. And COs make that happen. Some women get pregnant.

What happens when a woman gets pregnant in prison?
Well, one woman had twins, and her twins were given to her relatives until she got out. The officer who was the father—I don't know if he got arrested—but he got fired. He became a devout Christian. They kind of hooked up on the outside, but it didn't work, because he was so devoutly Christian and she was... who she was. Their relationship broke up when she testified. She didn't really want to testify, but they got DNA and everything.

I know one counselor—he was in love with a woman from Colombia—and when she went to her deportation meeting. He showed up, too. One of the marshals recognized him, so he got jammed up. I heard he actually went to Colombia after that.

What was it like for women whose children came to visit?
The visiting room scenes portrayed in Orange Is the New Black are wrong. First of all, you don't have little cozy tables, and you can't sit there and hold hands with anybody. There's rows of chairs, so you sit side by side. You can't have the child sit on your lap. You can't comfort them the way you would by putting your arms around them and holding them and rocking them if they're crying. There's a lot of tears in the visiting room. A lot of tears.

Safe, secure housing is a huge need when women are released.

In the new season they have a Mother's Day event where the kids can come and play games and spend the day in the camp.
There's Family Day. Or, there used to be, but the BOP [Federal Bureau of Prisons] took it away. Back then family members could come and have a cookout in the rec field, and they'd have games for kids and stuff like that. But they took that away.

I understand that when women get out, they need housing to get back custody of their children.
Many women end up going back to abusive spouses because they are unemployed and need a place to live. Women also hook back up with the drug dealers who helped put them in prison in the first place, because they can provide shelter or the cash to find a place of one's own. I've known women who had to live in a shelter because they had no place to go. Safe, secure housing is a huge need when women are released. We would like to see Netflix take some of the millions they are making off the OITNB series and set up a trust fund so returning women can have a decent place to live.

'[Piper's] dolphin tattoo was a source of admiration, as it was a calm and peaceful image. That's how Piper was: real and without pretension.'

So, you knew Piper. Do you feel like the show was accurate in her portrayal?
Piper did not stick out. She was not loud or obnoxious. Neither was she frightened or a candidate for suicide watch. She was obviously well-educated and from a privileged background, but she didn't carry herself as believing she was better than anyone else.

I offered to share my New Yorker magazines with her. We both would receive books from family and friends that were of a different caliber than the bodice-rippers that were a popular in the camp's library, and on occasion we shared them.

So she is friendlier in real life?
Piper was willing to help people fix items with the tools she had on her job. She would also supply coveted earplugs to those who asked. Her dolphin tattoo was a source of admiration, as it was a calm and peaceful image. She wasn't a diva, but did have a bit of sarcastic wit that made people laugh. Most who knew her in prison felt bad for her because she got such a raw deal from the feds. She and "Pops," a Greek woman who is portrayed as the Russian woman who ran the kitchen in the series, became close friends, despite the differences in their age and background. That's how Piper was: real and without pretension.

What about the other women who are now portrayed on the show?
The Russian woman in the show did a lot of years in prison. And it's true, she basically ran the kitchen. But never ever did she put Tampax in somebody's sandwich. She was incarcerated. But she had a lot of pull because she was good at what she did, and I think the staff respected that.

Crazy Eyes was not black. She was gay, and yes, she was weird. But she wasn't following people. I mean, I never saw it. She's doing well.

Yoga Janet was actually a very nice woman who got locked in on pot charges and was part of the same Sangha yoga group that I was.

Sister Ardeth, who's the political activist in the anti-nuclear movement and the peace movement, she's a very good woman, a very strong woman.

The facilities on the show are falling apart—the walls are moldy, the toilets and plumbing overflow and break at different points.
The camp is a dump. When inspectors came yearly for accreditation tours, the place would be cleaned, painted, and polished. The drain flies and worms in the dorm C/D bathroom would be cleaned up. The bunks are down in the basement, and women on the top bunks sometimes have pipes inches over their faces. The counselors would have women stand in front of doors that had holes in them.

Some of the pipes over the top bunks had fiberglass covering that was ripped and broken. The camp-education building had black mold and was eventually closed. But the women had to clean up the mold without proper protection.

When there was heavy rain, the kitchen drains backed up with human waste among other things. There have been times when we had no water and the toilets were disgusting because we couldn't flush them. Once I, and other women, took a shower by standing outside in minimal clothing and lathering up in the rain and rinsing off under a water spout. It was the most glorious, refreshing shower I ever took.

On Munchies: Prisons in Indiana are allowing some inmates to order pizza and takeout

Women on the show are punished and sent to SHU [Special Housing Unit] for various reasons, including having same-sex relationships. Was SHU as bleak as it's portrayed on the show?
Oh yes, same-sex relationships were banned. There is no sneaking in the chapel or library to have sex. A few of the counselors were extremely homophobic. If a woman was caught having sex with another woman, they would both be sent to SHU. Some counselors would also make sure the couple was split up by sending one of the women to another prison.

The cells in SHU have metal bars and contain a bunk bed and a sink/toilet combination. Showers are three times a week and you are escorted with your hands cuffed behind your back. There is no privacy and you have to be careful a male CO isn't walking by when you get out of the shower. The food is the same as those on the compound or camp.

You mentioned women would sometimes do nice things for others who were in SHU.
Many times the women who make up the SHU trays put a little extra in. If a woman was pregnant they'd help her; they'd sneak milk out for pregnant or sick women. Or they'd sneak fruit out to her, which is punishable by going to SHU. They'd wash her clothes for her, see that she was OK, make sure that she was in a room where there wasn't a lot of noise. They were very kind.

At SHU, you can pass things from cell to cell by "fishing," which is throwing something, such as shampoo, a note or food, and the person next to you uses a towel or sheet to try to drag it to her cell and then it makes its way down the tier to the intended recipient. It's nerve-wracking because there is always the danger of a CO coming.

What were some of the things women got sent to SHU for?
They would be sent to SHU for fighting. Most of the fighting occurred when couples broke up or over a relationship. They could go for not going to work or for being out of bounds. When a new shipment of women came in, they would put you in SHU for anything. They would do purges just to make room, to vacate beds. One woman was in there supposedly for complaining that there weren't papers or pencils for the English as a Second Language class.

I got sent to SHU for fighting, for arguing with a CO whom Mendez is based off of. He told me that he was going to make sure that I never came back to camp. When they told me that I wasn't coming back to camp, I burst into tears, because I never thought I'd have that freedom again. They have that power.

SHU is not as isolating as depicted on the show. You see people pass.You used to be able to look out windows that were placed high across from the cells in SHU. But a warden had them painted black. Our view of a slice of a blue sky or the moon disappeared.

For more information on Beatrice Codianni's work, go to Reentry Central. Season three of Orange Is the New Black was released last Friday on Netflix.

Delaney Nolan's work has appeared in Oxford American, Guernica, the Rumpus, and is forthcoming on NPR's Snap Judgment. Follow her on Twitter.