When Cleary Wolters received her prison sentence, she started looking for her purpose.
“I didn’t want this to break me,” she explains. “It was such a tiny piece of my life that I didn’t want that to define who I was.”
Not your typical drug smuggler
In 2003, Cleary was sentenced to nearly six years in federal prison for smuggling drugs. She served her time and had resumed a low-key life in Cincinnati when, in 2013, she saw a commercial for the upcoming Netflix original series, “Orange is the New Black.” Based on the memoir by Piper Kerman, the story immediately looked familiar. And when the character of drug smuggler Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) appeared, Cleary dropped the remote. The name had been changed, but she recognized the character. It was herself.
She hoped to remain anonymous–the name had been changed, after all–but within hours of the series’ release, Cleary’s mugshot, name and other personal information were posted online. But instead of shame and disdain, Cleary found a public that was welcoming and interested in the person behind the character they saw on the screen.
Before long, she was contacted by a literary agent. In an ironic twist that did not escape her notice, being outed as a former criminal allowed her to achieve her lifelong dream of becoming a published writer.
A fearless retelling
“I had to be absolutely fearless [when writing] about what I did,” says Cleary, whose book Out of Orange was released in May. The book details the missteps that led her to prison, then chronicles Cleary’s choices to better her life, beginning with teaching computer classes behind bars to help women leave prison with marketable skills.
The book also illustrates how the warehousing of prisoners instead of providing rehabilitation is harming society as a whole. It is alternately heartbreaking and hilarious, but most of all, it is honest and human.
Opportunity and responsibility
Cleary believes she has an opportunity as well as a responsibility to use her writing talent to increase understanding about the need for greater humanity inside the prison walls – and toward people who are trying to better themselves.
“Human beings have a capacity for unbelievable stupidity,” she says, noting that many are forced to continue paying for their crimes long after they have served their sentence.
After a fall, a rebirth
“But we can reinvent ourselves. You can absolutely rebuild yourself from the ground up. I’m proof of that. I feel as though I’ve taken my life back, and now I’m doing exactly what I’ve always wanted to do. It’s a wonderful gift.”