I watched only a bit of Orange is the New Black on television before I lost interest. I couldn’t connect with the main character, and I found the storyline a little troubling. I couldn’t understand why we needed a rich, white woman to tell us about prison, and the humor of it hit me the wrong way. But the show continued to grow in popularity, and I continued hearing about it. And then I noticed the book, Orange is the New Black (2010) by Piper Kerman on the bookshelves. I hadn’t realized that the book–and the show–were based on a true story. I was suddenly intrigued.
I think most people know the basic plot by now, but Piper Kerman is a graduate of Smith College. She’s looking for something different and exciting and falls into a relationship with a woman who organizes international drug transactions. Primarily a hanger-on, Piper carries a suitcase full of drug money on a flight to Europe before giving up on her girlfriend and moving to San Francisco. In San Francisco, Piper settles down in a career and finds the man of her life, and they eventually move to New York. Six years after her illegal activity, when she is living her life in New York, Piper is indicted for money laundering and drug trafficking. It takes another six years before Piper serves thirteen months at a federal penitentiary in Danbury, Connecticut.
Piper Kerman finds herself, at thirty-four years old, losing absolute control of her life for a year in order to atone for crimes she committed twelve years before. On the one hand, Kerman knowingly broke the law, and she was certainly in a position where she could have made a great number of better choices. On the other hand, this was a short episode of her life that was long past. Besides maybe fulfilling some sense of duty and justice, incarcerating her at this point was not doing anyone any good.
I am thirty-five years old right now, and unlike while watching the show, I could wholly relate to Kerman’s fears about prison. She goes into some detail about the shame of telling her fiance, her parents, her grandmother, her fiance’s parents, and her friends about what she’s done. Kerman’s first day of prison had me crying and flying through the pages with anxiety. I’ve heard people complain that prison is too easy on the incarcerated: that they can sit around watch television, and have three meals a day. But I don’t think they really comprehend the loss of freedom and the loss of dignity that accompanies all that. Not to mention that it’s almost impossible to find purpose or meaning in your life when you have no control. And the food sucks. Kerman, in an all women’s, minimum-security prison was in a much better situation than what exists in many other prisons, which we get a glimpse of near the end of the book. She was not a victim of violence and only occasional harassment from the guards and prison employees. She also had a relatively short sentence, frequent visitors, and a large support network of friends and family who sent her letters and books. Yet, think how crazy it could make you if you couldn’t visit with your loved one because a prison bureaucrat didn’t push through the correct paperwork in time.
As the book settles in, Kerman focuses on her day-to-day life while she was incarcerated as well as her relationships with many of the women living beside her. She chooses to focus on the more positive aspects of women supporting each other and working together to make their situation better. Kerman cannot avoid the discussion that many women are there for non-violent drug offenses that are tearing their lives, families, and neighborhoods apart. There is also a disturbing lack of preparation for the outside world. Kerman was leaving prison to go to the arms of her loving fiance, a waiting job, and her new home. Many women were facing unemployment, a violent family, and possibly homelessness.
I found this book fascinating, poignant, and relatable. It’s almost convinced me to give the show another try, but that will have to wait until I finish re-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Find all of my reviews here on my blog.