“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 before. 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 people 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. 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.”
– Goodreads Description
What struck me about the book was the relative peacefulness depicted in its pages. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still prison, and there are aspects to it that are beyond my imagining on the horror scale. The power dynamics between inmates and guards, the small private moments on full display, the lack of choice in diet (since I’m a vegetarian), the separation from loved ones, the shame and fear, being forced to confront the worst of what a failing system can do to people’s lives. All of it, horrifying. But in Piper’s narrative there is also a tone of self-discovery and inner searching that her prison term afforded.
At one point she is discussing a fellow inmate who is a drug addict, and who is eagerly anticipating her release so she can “get laid and score.” Piper is concerned for her safety, knowing that she has no intention of staying clean – and this leads her to the realization that her actions, however small to her at the time, had helped contribute to the damage drugs had caused in the lives around her in prison. She finally understands the reason (if not agreeing with the methods – most of which are dismal failures) behind the “war on drugs.”
Though the TV show (predictably) adds a lot of drama and violence, the book contained more subtle events and relationships. Piper writes of her fellow inmates, bringing them to life on the page. Some are damaged, some are driven slightly outside of normal by long prison terms. But all are rendered real and human in a way that prison dramas rarely do. She finds friends, sisters, stand-in mothers and role models in those around her. She also learns that her network of friends and family on the “outside” is strong and supportive, and really comes to understand, through seeing how many of her fellow inmates don’t have such a network, how valuable those connections are.
I enjoyed this book – much more than I expected to. I expected it to be entertaining, at times scary, and a relatively quick read. What I didn’t expect was the quiet power of the experience Piper shares. It has a delicacy that will stick with you long after you put it down, coming to mind at odd moments – when you see a beautiful lake, take a yoga class, or even when a household appliance conks out because of an electrical problem – all moments you’ll get when you read the book. It also draws a sad picture of the failure of the penal system to create any positive or long-lasting change in the lives of its inmates – the majority of whom will either return to the behaviours that landed them in jail the first place (out of necessity or addiction), return to prison once released, or spend the rest of their lives behind bars.
[SORT OF SPOILER] My only criticism (if it can be called that) of the book is the abrupt end when Piper is released. She had talked of spending time in a halfway house before being allowed to return home, but the book ends before this part of the story. I also wanted to know what life was like for her once she did return home – particularly since it’s to an apartment Larry chose for them while she was in prison. Did she like it? What was it like to sleep in her own bed for the first time in a year? Was it hard for her and Larry to return to their lives together? Did she keep in touch with any of the women she met while serving time? These are all questions that I would have loved to be given answers to. A couple more chapters or an epilogue would have sufficed. [END SORT OF SPOILER]
I can certainly see why this book (and the TV adaptation) are taking the world by storm, and I highly recommend spending a few hours in prison with Piper.
Further reading on OITNB, Piper Kerman and Larry Smith:
- Books of Orange is the New Black
- What Orange Is the New Black Gets Right About the Prison System — And What It Leaves Out (Huffington Post)
- 23 Surprising Facts About “Orange Is The New Black” (Buzzfeed)
- The Real Story Behind Orange is the New Black (Refinery 29)
- Orange is the New Black Trailer
- Modern Love Part 1 and Part 2 (Larry Smith’s Article in The New York Times)
Book Title: Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison
Author: Piper Kerman
Published by: Random House Publishing Group
Released: March 8, 2011
Genre: Non-Fiction, True Crime, Prison, Memoir, Autobiography
Date Read: August 7-12, 2013
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