Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman; published 2010 by Spiegel & Grau
Review in a word: Fascinating
Opening line: “International baggage claim in the Brussels airport was large and airy, with multiple carousels circling endlessly.”
When she was 24, Piper Kerman agreed to take part in her girlfriend’s drug operation by smuggling $10,000 into Belgium. She wasn’t caught, but soon after decided to break up with her girlfriend and move to San Francisco, where she met her husband-to-be, Larry. She thought she’d put that life behind her. But a few years later, officers came to her door and announced that she had been indicted for drug smuggling and money laundering. At her trial, she pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 15 months, but she had to wait almost six years before she actually received her prison assignment and began her sentence. Finally she received orders to report to the Danbury Federal Correctional Institution. This book is the account of her time there.
I admit; I picked this book up because I first watched the TV show, which I binge-watched over Christmas break. And I’ll tell you now: the book is better. But, if you’ve seen it, I won’t tell you which parts were real (at least according to the book) and which were grossly exaggerated for the sake of TV.
Piper made one mistake. She gave into peer pressure to help out her girlfriend. She regretted it, but she thought the worst was over. Have you ever done something illegal—accidentally ran a red light? Did the California roll at a stop sign? You didn’t think you were caught, but what if officers showed up a few years later to settle the offense? It’s terrifying because Piper is relatable; she’s just like you or me, which makes you think, “This could happen to me.”
For most people, prison is a horrifying curiosity: something we want to know about, but never experience. This book allows us to satisfy that curiosity, but it also sheds light on some of the myths surrounding incarceration. Fact: In prison, the conditions are not the most sanitary (this was the part that disturbed me most), there’s not much to do, there are strip searches, and you have every aspect of your life controlled. And talk about being at the mercy of red tape. I can’t imagine having to wait six years to go to prison, and waiting again for the paperwork anytime you want (or need) something to happen. The inertia of the system. It would drive me nuts. But surprisingly, some conditions inside the prison weren’t as bad as I would’ve feared.
What was particularly encouraging to read about was all of the support Piper received. The women in prison treated her respectfully, gave her toiletries and advice, and befriended her. Piper was much more fortunate than most of them: she came from an upper middle class and close-knit family, she had a loving fiance, and a safe home to return to when she left prison. In some ways, this made prison harder for her. The other women there, most of them coming from much worse situations, helped her adapt and make it through her time. She was forced to face her own misconceptions of prison and the people who live there. She had to acknowledge their human dignity, just as they acknowledged hers. Don’t get me wrong: there were the truly scary, hardened criminals that Piper had to deal with as well, but for the most part, she was with pretty normal women, women who had made bad choices in their lives and had not had many opportunities.
Of course, reading about life in prison was intriguing, but I was also impressed by some of Piper’s thoughts on guilt, justice, and dignity. They made the book relatable for all audiences.
She didn’t say I was an idiot. No one actually said I was a shame or a disappointment either. They didn’t have to. I knew it. Incredibly, my mother, my father, and my grandparents—all my family—said they loved me.
“Institutionalized” was one of the greatest insults one could throw at another prisoner, but when you resisted the systems of control, you suffered swift retribution. Where you fit in and how comfortable you were willing to get depended on the length of your sentence, the amount of contact you had with the outside world, and the quality of your life outside. And if you resisted finding a place in prison society, you were desperately lonely and miserable.
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. Instead, our system of “corrections” is about arm’s-length revenge and retribution, all day and all night. Then its overseers wonder why people leave prison more broken than when they went in.
Do you have to find evil in yourself to truly recognize it in the world? The vilest thing I had located, within myself and within the system that held me prisoner, was an indifference to the suffering of others.
Recommend? Yes! A fast, compelling read.
What I’m Reviewing Next: “The Provincials” by Daniel Alarcon
You might also like:
Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen
The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman