The new Netflix original series "Orange Is The New Black" is based on the true story of Piper Kerman, a college-educated woman who spent a year in prison after being convicted of drug smuggling and money laundering for a scheme she got tangled up in 10 years earlier.
Kerman, who authored a memoir of the same title, told HuffPost Live host Ahmed Shihab-Eldin what surprised her most about prison life on her first day there.
"Women began to approach me and I was scared, really scared," Kerman said. "And they said things like, 'Do you need some shower shoes? Do you need a cup of coffee? Do you need some shampoo? This is a really tough day Kerman, but it's going to get a little bit easier tomorrow'."
Kerman called this informal phenomenon "the welcome wagon," something she witnessed almost all new prisoners encounter during her sentence.
"The last thing I expected was to find this fascinating community of women, some of whom became incredibly important friends to me," she said.
One story from her book that inspired a character on the Netflix show described the treatment of a particular inmate who Kerman grew close to.
"There was a transsexual woman who was living literally next door to me in the dorm, called 'Vanessa' in the book. I found her to be a fascinating, wonderful person," Kerman recalled. "She had a lot of friends and fans, and then there's a lot of very, very religious people in prison sometimes, and some of them had strange opinions about her. But she was fascinating to me, and a really lovely human being ... I'm not an expert on how transitioning people are treated by the criminal justice system, but my personal observation is that they are not treated very well."
Kerman said she hopes to humanize prison life in her book as well as the series, and to educate people on the shortcomings of the criminal justice system in a way that incites action.
"I wasn't seeking to inform people who already know a lot about the criminal justice system or the prison system," she said.
"We have the biggest prison population in the world -- and really in human history -- in the United States, and the stories that are hidden behind prison walls are very different than most people's assumptions."