book review: Orange is the New Black

Title: Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison
Author: Piper Kerman
ISBN: 978-0385523387
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau (April 6, 2010)
Category: memoir
Review source: publisher
Rating: 5/5

In such a harsh, corrupt and contradictory environment, one walks a delicate balance between the prison’s demands and your own softness and sense of balance and sense of your own humanity. Sometimes at a visit with Larry I would be overwhelmed, suddenly overcome with a sadness about my life at the moment. Could our relationship weather this insanity? I worried.

Not that long ago, I got cuffed COPS-style and it completely freaked me out—my wrists ended up bloodied and bruised. I grew up in a WASPy middle-class environment in a suburb in Massachusetts. In 1991, I graduated from Simmons College, a small women’s college in Boston. Piper Kerman graduated from one of the Seven Sisters– Smith College– at around the same time. That’s where the similarities between my life and Piper’s life end. In 1992, I drove across the United States with a friend from my days as a competitive equestrian. While I visited San Diego, Las Vegas and Bryce Canyon, Piper hung out in Bali with drug runners and carried drug money to Brussels.

Indonesia offered what seemed like a limitless range of experience, but there was a murky, threatening edge to it. I’d never seen such stark poverty as what was on display in Jakarta, or such naked capitalism at work in the enormous factories and the Texas drawls coming from across the hotel lobby where the oil company executives were drinking.

A decade later, Piper’s criminal past, which she had long left behind, caught up with her. The blonde-haired, blue-eyed, well-educated Piper found herself in lock-up for a felony. Sentenced to 14 months in the women’s correctional facility in Danbury, Conn. Piper chronicles every detail in Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, a candid and reflective memoir.

Only 30 pages in, when Piper surrenders to the women’s prison in Danbury, Conn., I find my own heart racing as she describes the process so vividly. I would have had a major panic attack and passed out. Piper remains relatively composed as her fiancé dropped her at the door. Piper decides from the get-go that she needed to be brave, even if she just puts on a brave face. If she didn’t remain in that state of mind she felt that she’d be doomed to harassment and not getting through her sentence unscathed both emotionally and physically.

I had only the most tenuous idea of what might happen next, but I knew that I would have to be brave. Not foolhardy, not in love with risk and danger, not making ridiculous exhibitions of myself to prove that I wasn’t terrified—really, genuinely brave. Brave enough to be quiet when quiet was called for, brave enough to observe before flinging myself into something, brave enough to not abandon my true self when someone else wanted to seduce me or force me in a direction I didn’t want to go, brave enough to stand my own ground quietly. I waited an unquantifiable amount of time while I tried to be brave.

When Piper first arrives she immediately notices the tribal system where many women tend to “stick” to their own—blacks with blacks; Latinos with Latinos; whites with whites and so-forth. Over time, Piper has friends of every color and more importantly, these women accept her. [It was all very West Side Story—stick to your own kind, Maria!] Piper ends up in B Dorm aka “The Ghetto.”

Single-sex living has certain constraints, whether it’s upscale or down and dirty. At Smith College the pervasive obsession with food was expressed at candlelight dinners and at Friday-afternoon faculty teas; in Danbury it was via microwave cooking and stolen food. In many ways I was more prepared to live in close quarters with a bunch of women than some of my fellow prisoners, who were driven crazy by communal female living.

In Orange is the New Black, Piper provides the real scoop on good prison guards vs. bad. She details earning various privileges like using the phone and procuring special items from the commissary. Then there’s smuggling choice food from the cafeteria in the front of one’s underwear for cooking up later. There’s a plethora of protocols and methods to avoid trouble or privileges revoked. Piper recalls work duties. First she works in the electrical area and learns many tricks. Then she moves on to construction which allows her a bit more freedom and some fresh air. A true respite for her. Then there are a few prisoners who make passes at Piper which she manages to ward off, avoiding any insults.

It’s not all completely terrible despite being locked up. Piper slowly makes a close posse of friends on the inside. She reads a ton and has so many books that she lends them out to various inmates. To avoid stress, Piper runs on an outside track six miles a day and longer on the weekends. She also starts yoga classes with a vegetarian known as Yoga Janet. Piper gets hooked and finds it’s a great stress-reducer and a chance for personal reflection. Things also aren’t all rosy. There are many times when Piper falls into despair and retreats to her bunk to read or runs around and around and around the track to escape into NPR or a college radio station.

Piper touches on several controversial subjects including incarceration of non-violent drug offenders. I agree with her on this one. It’s similar to arresting the prostitutes by not the johns. Or pimps for that matter. One Dominican lady in her 70s was in for four years for a “wire charge”: she took phone messages for her drug-dealing relative.

Long mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses are the primary reason that the U.S. prison population has ballooned since the 1980s to over 2.5 million people, a nearly 300 percent increase. We now lock up one out of every hundred adults, far more than any other country in the world.

She discusses restorative justice as a result of reflecting on what she had done and some of the women she befriended in prison– But our current criminal justice system has no provision for restorative justice, in which an offender confronts the damage they have done and tries to make it right to the people they have harmed. Many who itch to return to the streets go right back to the drugs that got them locked up. The Bureau of Prisons [BOP] lacks the basic ability, funding and time to rehabilitate the incarcerated and thus the recidivism to commit the same crimes once released remains real. Some women turn to bad behavior as a coping mechanism against their poverty, lack of family support, abusive spouse and boyfriends and general hopelessness. She also talks candidly about her shock that very little is done for the women who’ve completed sentences and have no resources for release: reuniting with children and family members, finding housing and finding employment.

Piper’s story is at times upsetting and at other times amusing. She’s a courageous woman and Orange is the New Black is a gift to readers and an inspiration. Its truth will open your eyes to unfair treatment, lack of rehabilitation and repeated frustrations within the U.S. prison system. Orange is the New Black is at turns daunting, authentic, provocative and spellbinding. The best part is that it’s about women from all different backgrounds bonding to endure a miserable situation.

Reading/ Book Signing with Piper Kerman: Tuesday, May 11 at Brookline Booksmith

Piper’s website and twitter

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Buy at Amazon: Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison

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  1. #1 by Katie on April 9, 2010 - 15:46

    Good review. I enjoy stories written from a women/s POV, and so much of that is that half baked stuff you find labeled as “chick lit”. I just read a great memoir Dear Bob, Dear Betty
    that is a collection of love letters from the great depression. The female writer has a very strong voice that keeps things compelling.

  2. #2 by Julia on April 8, 2010 - 15:36

    You are a terrible writer.

    • #3 by Amy Steele on April 8, 2010 - 15:43

      thanks for the comment. please do come back.

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