May 18, 2015 12:00 PM

FROM CLEARY TO ‘ALEX’

“I relate to the show … uncomfortably,” says Wolters. Alex Vause (played by Laura Prepon, left, with Taylor Schilling as Piper) was modeled on her.

Watching TV one night in 2013, Cleary Wolters was stunned when what looked like a soap ad morphed, with the slam of a jail-cell door, into a promo for a new Netflix series, Orange Is the New Black. She had read the memoir—written by her ex Piper Kerman, it details Kerman’s prison stint after both women were convicted for their roles in a heroin-smuggling ring—but she wasn’t prepared to see it come alive on the screen. Still on probation 20 years after her misdeeds and living in Cincinnati, she feared exposure at her job at a software company, where they knew she had a record but not that she was gay or the full details of her crime. Now, she thought, “I’ll be the infamous lesbian drug smuggler having sex in their living room!”

As it turned out, they were fine with it. The show was a hit, and Wolters, who says the style of glasses worn by her TV doppelgänger Alex Vause is pretty much their only similarity, decided it was time to tell her own story. Her memoir Out of Orange portrays her as a “young and stupid” example to avoid. But it’s also a retort: “I wanted,” says Wolters, 52, “to correct the concept that I was singularly responsible for Piper’s downfall.”

At 29, broke and aimless, Wolters accepted a free trip through Paris (and $6,000 cash) from her sister’s exporter boyfriend, who she was told needed help sneaking diamonds into the U.S. “I wouldn’t say I had a sturdy moral compass,” she says. “It did not sound very criminal to me.”

She learned the truth—they were moving heroin sewn into jackets—only after reaching Africa. Wolters feared she couldn’t exit what she’d entered. Back in Northampton, Mass., her home after she dropped out of college, she confessed her role and panic to Kerman, an acquaintance she’d asked to cat-sit. Kerman joined her as a travel buddy, then cash courier. They became lovers and planned a move to San Francisco, but Wolters never made it: U.S. Customs busted the ring in 1994. Wolters named Kerman to authorities but says, “Everyone told on everyone. Of 14, only one defendant failed to do a plea agreement.” Not until a 2005 prison transfer did the two reencounter each other, and it was clear Kerman blamed her. “If she hadn’t met me, she probably wouldn’t have gone to jail. I feel bad for that,” Wolters concedes. “But the people involved were people who wanted to be.”

Kerman, 45, who spent 13 months in prison in contrast to Wolters’s five years and 10 months, tells PEOPLE in an e-mail: “Cleary and I may have different points of view about the time we spent together; I’d guess that would be true of most exes.”

Unlike their TV selves, the two spent only a few weeks in the same facility, in Chicago, where the chill thawed. But there was no prison intimacy between them, as there is on the show. “If prison were really like that, there would be a line to get in,” says Wolters. “Lesbian sex everywhere you go? Parties in the cafeteria? It’s entertainment.”

She and Kerman are now on cordial terms, though she has no idea if Kerman has read her book. “I think she’ll appreciate that I didn’t go into salacious detail about our love life,” Wolters says. She praises her ex’s efforts to push for prison reform and hopes her own cautionary tale will do good as well. “If I can save as many people as I may have harmed,” she says, “I’ll be okay.”

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