Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison
By Piper Kerman
Summary: With a career, a boyfriend, and a loving family, Piper Kerman barely resembles the reckless young woman who delivered a suitcase of drug money ten years ago. But that past has caught up with her. Convicted and sentenced to fifteen months at the infamous federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut, the well-heeled Smith College alumna is now inmate #11187-424—one of the millions of women who disappear “down the rabbit hole” of the American penal system. From her first strip search to her final release, Kerman learns to navigate this strange world with its strictly enforced codes of behavior and arbitrary rules, where the uneasy relationship between prisoner and jailer is constantly and unpredictably recalibrated. She meets women from all walks of life, who surprise her with small tokens of generosity, hard words of wisdom, and simple acts of acceptance. Heartbreaking, hilarious, and at times enraging, Kerman’s story offers a rare look into the lives of women in prison—why it is we lock so many away and what happens to them when they’re there.
Source: I purchased a paperback
I picked up OITNB to fit the 2016 POPSUGAR Reading Challenge category of political memoir. I know, it’s not technically a political memoir, but prisons are hot button issues and the author is a huge advocate for change within the system after writing it, so it technically IS a political memoir and it saved me from having read awful current affairs memoirs about how great some politician is. (No offense to anyone who reads those for enjoyment, but I prefer my brain to not be stuffed with information that I have to sift through and determine which is true and which are stretched truths to perpetuate a political view. It’s so much work.)
I knew before going in that the book was not as entertaining as the show, which I’ve seen the first season of and thoroughly enjoyed. But the inner workings of prison interests me and I frequently watch Lockup on MSNBC out of curiosity. I also knew that Piper was a privileged middle to upper class white woman who was writing about her experiences from her own point of view and I knew that a lot of reviewers had a problem with that, so I went in fully knowing what to expect.
Here’s the thing. I really liked Piper and, despite how annoying it was that she called her fiancé “Darling” (rolls eyes), she was likable and aware of her own privilege. I would say that if had she written this book without realizing that she was somehow fortunate or different or better off, it would have been awful. But she wrote knowing that she had a ton of resources that other people didn’t have as well as a short stay and a way to prevent herself from coming back. And she managed to write from that perspective without being snobby. She didn’t set herself apart and think she was somehow better than other people because of her situation. I think it takes nerve to write about an experience that few in your own demographic get to experience and still manage to make it relatable and compassionate.
Piper made connections with the women in the prison and became a part of it while also managing to stay hopeful and prepared for life outside of prison. It seemed like a delicate balance. I thought OITNB was needed. Even on shows like Lockup, it’s clear that men’s prisons are more talked about, seen, shown, and understood. It’s rare to see a women’s prison and the dynamics are completely different from that of men’s prisons.
The author was writing about her experiences and while it may seem as if she had a different experience due to her background, I think it’s important that she wrote about them for her audience, which, let’s face it, is probably made up of the same demographic of middle class white people. And those people are often the people who participate in and have a say in local level and even higher levels of politics. There are a ton of class and race issues in the U.S. and it’s not a bad thing to raise awareness within a demographic that may see themselves as better or more removed from the issue. While Piper herself didn’t walk around with an air of superiority, perhaps readers of this memoir did/do and perhaps they thought/think poor and violent criminals made up the prison system and, for them, it’s incredibly shocking to realize that prison is possibly made up of normal people who made bad decisions, some of which weren’t really that big! The author fully admits to having been a part of something illegal as part of growing up and rebelling, which is something that I think a lot of people can relate to.
Piper did diminish her own responsibility in her drug escapades a bit, but I think that’s fairly normal to do when crime isn’t a part of your day to day life and you have the opportunity to grow up and live a normal life. If you ask everyone you know from middle class upbringings about committing crimes in their youth, I think the answers would shock a lot of people. Shoplifting, doing drugs, driving drunk.. These are things people do everyday and if they aren’t caught, they have an opportunity to grow on their own and realize they were just young and stupid. However, for people without opportunities and people in areas of high crime and low income, those crimes aren’t necessarily as forgettable when you get arrested for the same mistakes your peers made and have to wind up in the prison system to atone. And once you end up there, not having resources or a way to get a job and readjust to life outside could mean you end up in the revolving door of the prison system. It’s certainly an issue and I don’t think scoffing at Piper for considering her crime to be “no big deal” is helping the situation. For her, it wasn’t. It was a part of her past. Like that the of Chapstick you know you stole from the mall that one time.
Piper’s experiences were far different than a lot of her cell mates and she realized that. I think it’s a shame how many reviewers seem to think she had no right to write this because of that. Just because she came from a more privileged background and had a way out to prevent prison from becoming a revolving door doesn’t mean that her experiences aren’t valid or real. And it’s obvious that prison changed her outlook and she works within that community as a spokesperson for change and creating a more rehabilitative system for people. She brought awareness to a growing problem and she maintains the few relationships she can maintain from her time there.
It’s easy to roll your eyes and think Piper had it way too easy, but I think that’s diminishing the point of the memoir. Sometimes I think people were rooting for Piper’s failure or were hoping that she’d be knocked down a few pegs in prison and they miss the point completely. Piper could be annoying, but she wasn’t afraid to acknowledge her own privilege and I was not expecting that. She wrote from experience and made me realize just how many people end up in prison for minor crimes and how many of the rules were broken and how prison wasn’t nearly as rehabilitating as it’s supposed to be in a place with less violent offenders. It was a place to wait. And for nonviolent offenders, it wasn’t a place they could hope to readjust to the outside world. To the outside, prisoners are all violent and doomed, and Piper showed readers that it wasn’t that simple.
The show is much more entertaining and only loosely based on this memoir, so it serves a different purpose. The book is serious in a way the show is not. However, it’s still worth the read and it’s quite short. I definitely recommend the book, but I caution people because it differs from the show and it is also not all encompassing of all experiences in prison and could be less enjoyable for people who might not realize that.