Sunday, August 10, 2014

Orange Is The New Black: My Year In A Women's Prison by Piper Kerman

Orange Is The New Black: My Year In A Women's Prison by Piper Kerman
Published April 2010 by Random House Publishing
Source: I bought this one while watching the Netflix adaptation

Publisher's Summary:
When Piper Kerman was sent to prison for a ten-year-old crime, she barely resembled the reckless young woman she’d been when, shortly after graduating Smith College, she’d committed the misdeeds that would eventually catch up with her.Happily ensconced in a New York City apartment, with a promising career and an attentive boyfriend, she was suddenly forced to reckon with the consequences of her very brief, very careless dalliance in the world of drug trafficking.

Kerman spent thirteen months in prison, eleven of them at the infamous federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut, where she met a surprising and varied community of women living under exceptional circumstances. In Orange Is the New Black, Kerman tells the story of those long months locked up in a place with its own codes of behavior and arbitrary hierarchies, where a practical joke is as common as an unprovoked fight, and where the uneasy relationship between prisoner and jailer is constantly and unpredictably recalibrated.

My Thoughts:
Orange Is The New Black is one of those books that caught my eye when it first came out and one which periodically piqued my interest over the past few years but I had never quite gotten around to picking it up. I knew that Netflix had turned it into a series but then I didn't get around to watching that, either. Then I heard a discussion about the series on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour and I just had to start watching the series. Every time I watched an episode, I'd think to myself "it's time to pick up the book." And then I wouldn't. Finally, as I sat watching the first episode of Season 2, I picked up my Nook and ordered it.

Taylor Schilling, who plays Piper in the
series, and Piper Kerman
Let's just get the bad out of the way right up front, shall we? Kerman can be a bit repetitive sometimes, evidently assuming that her reader has forgotten certain facts or characters. That's it. That's the only thing that didn't work for me in this book. The only other problem I had is that I spent a lot of my reading time comparing the book to the series. For obvious reasons, some things have been expanded, characteristics of certain inmates have been ascribed to different characters in the book, and there are back stories for the characters in the series that are not included in the book. As I almost always would, I'd highly recommend you read the book before you watch the series. Just as a matter of distraction, though; not because the series suffers in comparison.

Kerman makes no excuses and takes complete responsibility for her own actions making her a very believable chronicler. Having seen the series, it came as no surprise to me that Kerman developed a great fondness for her fellow inmates and a great disapprobation for the penal system in the United States. As a white-skinned, blue-eyed, blonde inmate with a strong support system, an education, and financial means, Kerman was not a typical inmate and she understands that her experience was very different than it is for most women, much easier. Being in a minimum-security facility for most of her time (except for a brief time when she was called to testify against a codefendant), life was not as dangerous for Kerman as it might have been in a maximum-security facility. In fact, she says she quickly realized there was very little threat of physical violence. Still, constant humiliation at the hands for the officers, continually changes rules and lack of enforcement of stated rules, poor living conditions, and a complete disregard for rehabilitation and reintegration into society at release made the experience difficult.

When she entered the prison system, Kerman was already a much different person than the one who had committed the crime for which she was incarcerated. She was an altogether new person when she finally walked out thirteen months later and a vocal advocate for prison and mandatory sentencing reform. As much as Orange Is The New Black is Kerman's personal story, it is also a call to arms. We are doing ourselves a great disservice in treating those convicted of crimes this way.

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