What I Learned From 2014's Most Famous Ex-Cons, Piper Kerman and Jordan Belfort

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort
Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort

Recipe for success in 2014: take a middle-class white person, add a dash of money laundering and a bit less than two years in prison. Whisk gently, and take the contents (a successful memoir) and bake until you have your final product: a wildly successful TV show or movie. It's a recipe that worked well for felons Piper Kerman and Jordan Belfort, whose lives were adapted into Orange is the New Black and The Wolf of Wall Street, and who toured the nation this year, giving inspirational speeches.

Kerman has been doing a college tour, giving free speeches at various universities across the country. In April, she came to USC to present "An Evening with Piper Kerman," focusing on her time in jail, and the lessons she brought with her to the real world. Most people have an idea of what her time in jail was like, thanks to the success of the Netflix show, but the real Piper brought a sense of pathos and empathy to the evening. Kerman assumed full responsibility for the wrongs she had done, even though her crime (money laundering) did not directly impact anyone outside her circle of drug traffickers.

She was adamantly apologetic, though, saying, "I believe that a lack of empathy lies at the heart of every crime." She saw the indirect effect of her actions up close during her sentence, in the lives of her fellow inmates who were addicts and/or imprisoned for drug charges.

Piper Kerman giving a speech at USC in April.EXPAND
Piper Kerman giving a speech at USC in April.
Photo by Katie Buenneke

The theme of the night was clear: what going to jail means and does to a person, and the importance of prison reform. Kerman was passionate and articulate, explaining all of the problems with the way our country and prison system deals with criminals. She pointed to Norway's notoriously humane prison system and Ohio's rehabilitation-focused Marion Correctional Institution as attainable ideals. She seemed to resonate with her audience — while the co-eds may have come for juicy dish about their favorite all-womens' prison, we walked away from the event with a good understanding of how a broken part of our society can be fixed.

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Jordan Belfort, on the other hand, provided a radically different experience. Tickets to his "Straight Line" seminar, held in a dimly-lit room in the L.A. Convention Center last Wednesday, were $50-$500 a pop, and promised a sure-fire way to be successful in business. His presentation was a bit of a mess, including lots of tangents and plenty of jokes about his anus. He paced the stage frenetically, occasionally pausing by a flipboard to scrawl something. Most of the scribbles were illegible, but those that weren't were hilariously misspelled (including possibly Freudian "resluts" in lieu of "results"). 

The message of the evening was how to be successful like Jordan Belfort. There's a major problem with this premise: Sure, Belfort is a natural salesman, but he also talked himself right into jail for swindling investors for $200 million. To be fair, I'm not really the target demographic for one of Belfort's inspirational speeches — I'm not really interested in what he's selling (literally or metaphorically). But he seemed to appease the rest of audience, which was mostly made up of rowdy former frat stars.

Jordan Belfort speaking at the LA Convention Center last weekEXPAND
Jordan Belfort speaking at the LA Convention Center last week
Photo by Katie Buenneke

My personal tastes aside, though, I noticed a huge difference in what Kerman and Belfort had to say. Though both come from good families, went to good colleges, served one to two years in minimum-security prisons and wrote wildly successful memoirs, their demeanors were significantly different. Belfort's focus was on replicating his success, with little regard for the effects that might have. In his world, everyone is in a mad scramble to accumulate as much wealth as possible.

What surprised me most was his conspicuous avoidance of his own wrongdoing. He never gave the sense that he regretted what he did, and seemed more concerned with the fact that he was caught. Even when he was talking about his time in Alcoholics Anonymous, he backtracked, dancing around saying the organization's best-known mantra: "The first step is admitting you have a problem." It seems Belfort can't even admit that he has a problem. Similarly, he sidestepped talking about his crimes, using euphemisms like "finding a niche" and "I cracked the code." The only code you cracked is the legal one.

The Wolf of Wall Street
The Wolf of Wall Street

But what is Belfort if not a spin master? He's the guy who always comes out on top, even if he doesn't deserve to be there. Near the end of the night, he confided in the audience. "I don't know if you guys know this, but I'm not even making any money on this tonight," Belfort says. "I'm giving it all back to investors who lost money back in the day. Seriously, I am. I think it's the right thing to do...I wanted to do it." I'm sure his altruistic desire has nothing to do with the outcry following the revelation that he still hasn't paid back the people he pumped and dumped, 15 years after he pleaded guilty. 

After seeing Belfort speak, I was left with two overwhelming impressions. First off, I realized that my three hours would have been much better spent re-watching The Wolf of Wall Street — for all the arguing about it, it's a film with a much better moral compass than the one Belfort seemed to have.

But more importantly, I was struck by how the court and prison system have failed Belfort. For as much as Kerman (rightly) protests the inefficacy of our prison system, clearly something about the experience worked for her. You get the sense that Kerman will only be going back to jail as an advocate, not as a prisoner. But Belfort? It seems like he's not concerned with the law so much as he's concerned with getting rich and not getting caught. 

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