Orange is the New Black: One Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman
2010. Spiegel & Grau. ebook. 322 pages.
In case you haven’t heard of this book before, Orange is the New Black is Piper Kerman’s memoir about her experience in a women’s mininum security prison in Danbury, Connecticut. It inspired the Netflix TV show by the same name, of which I have watched both seasons. In 1993, Kerman helped transport drug money for her girlfriend at the time. In 1998, she pled guilty to the crime, but didn’t serve her sentence until 2004.
I found Orange is the New Black a worthwhile read. While it was fun to spot the inspirations for characters, plotlines and scenes used in the TV show, the memoir is really a completely different story than the show. Kerman never sensationalizes prison life. For the most part, the inmates really look out for each other, and Kerman is both the recipient and giver of touching gestures and gifts. In an interview included at the back of the book, Kerman states that her book “is really about finding that value in humanity and warmth in a setting where we’re constantly told there’s none to be found.”
It seems that one of the worst aspects of prison is how the inmates are at the mercy of the correctional officers’ moods, prejudices and caprice. While certainly there need to be rules and order in prison, some COs seem to indulge in power trips and withholding information unnecessarily from the inmates. I have a friend who works as an addiction counselor in the prison system. In her first prison job, most of her difficulties arose from conflicts with correctional officers, not with the inmates. (I haven’t asked her lately if that dynamic is the same.) As Kerman describes in an NPR interview:
KERMAN: [A] small kindness from a prison officer, or a staffer, can sometimes really mean the world. There were also a very, very small number of folks – men, in my experience – who really made it their business to make life miserable for prisoners. And one prison guard can make hundreds and hundreds of prisoners’ lives unbearable.
GROSS: There’s a lot of times when you’re frisked, when you’re in prison. And for one of the guards, that’s an opportunity to feel women up – one of the male guards. Is that something you experienced in prison, or is that something that was written for the Netflix series?
KERMAN: I – like, I think most of the women that I knew in Danbury frequently experienced, you know, that really simple and straightforward groping, which is a total violation. It’s really low-level sexual abuse, but it is really persistent and pervasive. And so that would happen all the time and generally, that would happen in the course of going in or out of the visiting room. So it’s particularly jarring to sort of have that kind of a violation happen just as you’re about to go and try and have a really positive experience with your loved ones.
I’m really glad Kerman has been able to shine this spotlight on the life of prisoners in the United States. I can think of several instances when I’ve seen or heard people regard prisoners as less than human. This past Christmas, a friend of my sister’s posted on Facebook about her church congregation’s decision to send 32,000 gifts to inmates in their state prison system. The first comment on her post: “Why inmates and not children or families in need?!” (My sister’s friend and another person responded very graciously that inmates are people in need as well, and that the church also has funds dedicated to children and needy families.)
Kerman’s critique of the prison system should not lead to the conclusion that Kerman denies her own culpability in her situation. Kerman states from the start that her jail-time was deserved: she broke the law and received the consequences of that action. She is also aware of her own privilege – that she had a supportive fiance, plus supportive family and friends throughout her jail-time, and that her sentence was relatively short.
Also, as friendly as fellow inmates could be, prison should in no way be construed as some sort of summer camp. Kerman makes it clear that prison is emotionally punishing and the lack of freedom is not an abstract concept but something deeply felt on a daily basis. The boredom, the lack of privacy, the separation from family and friends, from the world and its beauty, are all part of the experience. Do the prisoners come out of their sentences prepared to re-enter the world? Kerman’s opinion is that they largely do not. She also specifically criticizes mandatory drug sentences, which have led to more, and more lengthy incarcerations than seems beneficial to society.
There are a couple other prison or prison-related memoirs out there that I may read, now that I’ve read the most currently famous one. I’d particularly like to read Ted Conover’s Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, about how Conover, a journalist, applies to become a prison officer.
Excerpts from others’ reviews:
Leafing through Life – “Kerman has a vivid, honest voice that doesn’t drift into self-pity but instead keenly observes the people around her both good and bad.”
The Novel Life – “While I’ve never been a fan of a memoir, Orange is the New Black reads like a fiction novel. Piper is conversational, a bit sarcastic at times, and a character that, while you may not feel relatable, you will at least find yourself immersed in her story.”
Reading through Life – “It was interesting to me, in particular, to read about the way that she adapted to the rules and routines of being in the system, and how she managed to deal with knowing that she, unlike quite a few of the others around her, was there for the first time and probably the last. I think this is what makes her story both unique and less valuable as an “insider’s look at prison”: Kerman isn’t the “typical” American prisoner.”