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 ago. 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 women 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, where the uneasy relationship between prisoner and jailer is constantly and unpredictably recalibrated. 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, Orange Is the New Black 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.
With self-deprecating honesty, she gives us a memoir of how she got there, what life was like inside, and her relations with her fellow prisoners. It is the day-to-day relations with these sister inmates that captures us. Kerman is quite insightful in her explanations of their plights, in her assessment of the prison system, in her stories of learning to work the system (for instance how to obtain items not available through the prison commissary), and work outside the system (how to get a manicure) and how to work for the system (she worked first as an electrician, then on a construction crew). Throughout it all, she shows how she maintained her equilibrium with the help of, and by helping, her fellow inmates.
Their stories are funny, sad, uplifting and depressing. She has changed names and identifying circumstances, but the cast of fellow prisoners she presents help us understand not only the rules and workings of the prison, but the circumstances that brought many of these women to their current residence. The stories of mothers separated from their children are particularly touching.
It was an eye-opening memoir: one that does not sugar coat, that does not cry "woe is me". The author accepts responsibility for her actions and appears to have learned valuable life lessons. She is now working to provide those same opportunities for others who did not have her resources (either personal, financial or legal). Kerman's work inside, and now outside is actually somewhat inspiring and causes the reader to sit back and think whether or not he or she could have survived the fifteen months the author did.
As intriguing to me however, is the impact Kerman has made. Since publishing this book, Kerman has spoken and written often on the lunacy of lengthy sentences to non-violent offenders in the ever losing War on Drugs. She is equally vocal about the lack of training and rehabilitation for these women when the inevitably end up back in our midst. How do they find jobs outside the underground economy when they have been provided little to no training? How do they find housing? Proper health care? Renew custody of their children? Such is Kerman’s reach that she has given testimony before the US Congress.
In this I find a parallel with Solomon Northrup, author of “Twelve Years a Slave.” Northrup, an educated, free black man in 1840’s New York is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the deep South. He penned his widely read account upon his rescue. Harriet Beecher Stowe counted his book as an influence. His tale energized the abolitionist movement and he went on a lengthy speaking tour. Both Northup and Kerman were educated and articulate writers with descriptive powers to bring their unfortunate compatriots to life. There have been other accounts from ‘regular’ inmates or slaves. But these can be ignored because they are perceived as being so far from the mainstream. Part of Kerman and Northrup’s power, I believe, lies in their very normality, which allows readers to be more empathetic, picturing themselves walking in the authors’ shoes.
Kerman also leads one to think carefully about one’s place in a community. She enters prison with a stoic, I-can-do-this-on-my-own attitude. Indeed, she is counseled by several to avoid making friends. She writes well about the rituals, tribes and unwritten rules of prison society, and her challenges in fitting in. Even in this closed society, life is better with the assistance and small kindnesses of others – providing needed ‘extras’ of soap and shampoo upon her arrival, and much needed sympathy and understanding upon a deep personal loss. Kerman’s most difficult time comes with her transfer to Chicago MCC where such community is next non-existent. Kerman reflected that her experience fitting into the elite all-female Smith College actually helped her acclimate to life in a female prison ward. I’m struck as to how applicable such lessons might be in other communities, such as Senior Citizen homes.
Overall an interesting, thought provoking and quick read.
I hated all the parts where she talked about herself. How many times should you be referencing your silky blonde hair and shapely body? And that you got special treatment because the prison officials thought you were classy? Do we need to know that all the other prisoners thought you were hot? Plus, she kept pointing out that she would never be racist, but everyone else in prison was.
I wanted to shake her "slender shoulders" and say "Boo hoo. Prison isn't supposed to be fun. That's why it's called prison. If you don't like it, don't smuggle drugs into the country."
She was also very bitter about the way the staff treated her. I have numerous relatives who work in prisons. They can't really be nice to people. Obviously the "horse cock" incident was over-the-top, but for the most part prison employees are just doing their jobs. They are there to maintain order, not host a party or make prison more pleasant for people who committed crimes.
So there were definitely parts of the book I enjoyed reading, but I don't see myself wanting to hang out with Piper at a party.
The book could easily have been subtitled: First World Problems. The picture of prison that Piper paints is an interesting one, but it’s not very scary. She gets pedicures and has time catch up on reading classics. One of her biggest problems is that she can’t the prison store is out of the radios that you need to listen to the audio on the movies they show. She touches on more serious issues like sexual harassment from guards, lack of preparation for prisoners re-entering the work force, prisoner health problems, minority persecution, etc. but she never really has to deal with any of those things. They feel like distant possibilities, not real issues people are facing. To be fair, Piper acknowledges the fact that she is very lucky to not have to deal with those problems.
That being said, it was a really fun read. I knew the basic premise before I started it because of the TV series. If you are already a fan of the show I would encourage you to check this out. I was actually expecting there to be many more differences, but the show is just a sensationalized version of the book. There are added bits of drama in each episode, but much of the plot is based on her real experiences.
BOTTOM LINE: Read it if you love the show or are a fan of nonfiction. Don’t expect a revealing look at the American prison system.
I can see why others might not like it. In another world, I might have lambasted this book a la "Wild". But I feel the difference is this woman owns up to her mistakes. Cheryl Strayed ran away from them. True, Kerman does benefit from white privilege while in the system, but she also benefits from keeping her head down and doing her own time. There are no grand gestures. It's a series of anecdotes about time in prison, and surprisingly, there are a lot of them. I'm not sure why there are chapters because there doesn't seem to be much categorization.
It's far from flawless. There are a lot of characters and Kerman doesn't describe them distinctively enough to picture them. If you haven't seen the show, you could easily get lost. But I had no problem with her attitude or writing style, as some have. This is non-fiction -- don't go in expecting a soap opera. But it has the same comedy-drama tone as the show, which is what I think you should come for.
I was wrong on both counts. Piper Kerman starts off by explaining what she did to end up in prison: transporting drug money. Instead of whining about how it wasn't really her fault and how she was duped, she admitted that it was both a stupid and a criminal act that she committed. (I hate whining unless, of course, I am the one doing it, and then it is always entirely justified.) Several years after the act, she was charged and pleaded guilty with a plea agreement. Another several years went by before she actually was sent to prison, time that she spent in limbo waiting for her prison time so that she could finish it and truly begin life again.
Piper was sent to a facility in Danbury, Connecticut, an easier place to serve time than the hard core prisons. Nevertheless, there were entirely new rules to learn and a complete new culture. She describes some of her fellow inmates with both insight and compassion, and surprised herself by how much she grew to like some of the women. She also recognized that as a blond-haired, blue-eyed white girl with supportive and relatively wealthy family and friends, and had a lot of advantages that others didn't. Many of her fellow inmates came from areas where the economy was almost entirely dependent on criminal activity and had inadequate legal support.
Along these lines, she also discussed without being too preachy the shortcomings of the penal system. These women who had for the most part been convicted of nonviolent crimes were given almost nothing in the way of rehabilitation, education, or help to learn to re-enter society. Warehousing these women is both expensive and ineffectual, and there has to be a better way. As an example, one re-entry program about housing did not help the women learn how to find housing once they were released but did discuss the pros and cons of aluminum siding.
This book is not a humorous book in the traditional sense but it is written with humor and compassion. Considering that the setting is a prison, there is surprisingly little profanity other than occasional use of the f-word, although there are certainly some colorful people whose practices and beliefs are a bubble off normal. I appreciated the style of writing. In describing a time when some of the normal amenities were unavailable, Ms. Kerman writes “two hundred women, no phones, no washing machines, no hair dryers – it was like Lord of the Flies on estrogen. I sure as hell wasn't going to be Piggy.” The book was entertaining and entertaining and, in my opinion, a very good read.
There has been a lot of dialogue and discussion taking place re: Orange Is the New Black all over the internet. I think any show that inspires constructive dialogue is valuable, even though the show may in some ways be problematic. (For example, the narratives of women of color are secondary to the show’s white, middle-class protagonist, and racial stereotypes run rampant.)
I’m not here to talk about the show in particular, but my thoughts and opinions of the show will inevitably be interspersed throughout my review of Piper Kerman’s memoir. Although I’ve read quite a few opinion pieces on the show, I haven’t yet read any reviews of the book, so I’m coming at this with my own thoughts. (I am myself a middle-class white woman.)
The only thing I’d heard, before reading the book myself, was that Kerman comes off in her memoir as even more obnoxiously privileged, entitled, and ignorant than she does in the show. I actually found the opposite to be true; at least in the memoir, I had access to Kerman’s thoughts and feelings of remorse. (While watching the show, I often find myself wondering, what is she thinking?) Of course, it bears mentioning here that the show and the memoir do have significant narrative differences.
In her memoir, Kerman does seem to be aware of her privilege (although often she calls it “luck,” which I found a bit annoying). She mentions, several times, that she could not have survived prison without the support she receives from her well-to-do family and her many friends on the outside. Not only does she have plenty of incoming money–so she can afford not only good legal aid but also whatever commissary items she might desire in prison–she also has a marketing job (created just for her!), a fiance, and an apartment waiting for her on the other side. She recognizes that many of her fellow prisoners–who are poorer than she or who are women of color–often have very long sentences that seem disproportionate to their crimes.
I was impressed by Kerman’s (perhaps after-the-fact?) optimism, though, and by her ability to form meaningful relationships with many of the other women at Danbury. She respects and admires many of the women with whom she does time–and she comes off in her memoir as very genuine, if a bit patronizing. She humbles herself and owns up to her poor choices, and she even largely reconciles with her ex-girlfriend Nora, who first introduced her to the drug cartel.
Kerman wants desperately to maintain her dignity and humanity while in prison, but I noticed that at times she treats her fellow prisoners with less than the dignity they deserve, occasionally labeling them “freaks” or “crazy,” especially the women at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in Chicago. I think that Kerman’s intention may be to put us in her prison mindset, but it also gave me the feeling that at some level, Kerman does think she is “above” the MCC, that she doesn’t belong there, and that she is better than the women there, especially the mentally ill women.
Orange Is the New Black has opened my eyes to the futility of imprisonment in many–not all–cases, especially low-level drug offenses. People find themselves in prison, and there they are taught, as Kerman says, to survive prison–not to survive and function in the outside world. And so they often end up back in prison, or they find themselves without housing or jobs once they are released. And of course, the “justice” system is much, much harder on people of color and poor people.
Kerman’s memoir is an interesting read, and one that has made me do a lot of thinking. It was, in many ways, very moving and funny. I recommend both the book and the television show, and I look forward to the continued dialogue.
Despite the facts of this story, the writing itself lacked depth and creativity. This is a memoir – should not it have the same standards as any literary work of art, or is it not required to be anything other than a solid piece of writing without grammatical errors? I expect more from any author and expected more from Ms. Kerman. The emotions I felt were not associated with how she relayed her story. I was horrified and saddened over the facts of the case, not in the telling of her tale. The manner in which she voiced her experiences appeared self-fulfilling, at the expense of a well-devised novel with a social moral. I do not feel it is right to judge a novel alone by the power of the story to move the reader. It requires something more – aesthetic balance.
Kerman's lack of over-dramatizing her prison experience is exactly what makes this such a great book. As a former BOP Psychologist, I was curious and cautious about how Kerman would describe her experience. While I often cringed at what appeared to be her automatic dislike of all staff, I am fully aware that most inmates suffer the brunt of staff's daily frustrations and are occassionally subjected to some terrible situations caused at the hands of sadistic individuals who never should have been hired in the first place. However, Kerman presented a very real view of prison-mainly boring on most days, with a bit of random excitment thrown in, all while dealing with a constant internal struggle over a loss of freedoms. The most amazing and raw thing about the book is Kerman's focus on her relationships and how important they are to healing any type of wound. I admire Kerman for her ability to learn and grow from her experience and her attempt at portraying prisons differently than Oz or most other dramatic media. She proved there is a way to highlight a need for change without calling pity upon herself and other inmates-a much more mature way of presenting the issue.
Kerman offers us a very different perspective on prison life than the depictions you usually see on the news, or in television and movies. It's not a violent story, or a sensational one. She's not trying to impress us with how tough she is or make us feel sorry for her. Mostly, it's about the ordinary experiences of life in prison, about staying sane as you do your time, and, most especially, about the surprisingly close and supportive relationships that develop between prisoners. It's also a quiet condemnation of aspects of the US criminal justice system. Kerman never gets up on a soapbox and rants, but she does make it clear how ill-served many of these women are by the system, which does little except teach people how to live as prisoners. Overall, it's an interesting and rather eye-opening read.
That said, I was shocked by this book.
According to Kerman, when she surrendered to prison, she had had a decent upbringing with an ivy league education, she was a white collar professional, and she was engaged to be married (to a man).
Like most people who didn't choose Orange is the New Black because they watch the television show, I picked it up out of prurience. I am mentally ill, and because of this and my own poor choices, I have spent time locked up in both loony bins and jails, but never prison. And EVERYBODY knows the system is broken. I was ready to be intrigued, mortified, sympathetic, empathetic, and relate. I did not.
As an example, one incident Kerman cites as particularly egregious and therefore representative of her prison experience
The author's material privilege has such an effect on her perspective. One might not think it would: prison is supposed to be spartan, but Kerman's baseline for human comfort is high. And that is the true problem: her baseline for existence is higher than mine.
No one is ready to have her rights taken away for the first time. That kind of dehumanization carries a universal feeling. As for the rest of it? I hope the TV series is better.
It was an interesting look at prison from the point of view of a non-traditional inmate. Did Piper `learn her lesson` ? Maybe, maybe not, but the story had nothing to do with lessons-learned. It was a glimpse into a world that most wealthy educated non-drug addicted women don't experience. I quite enjoyed it, and found that I was surprised at some things (how helpful other inmates were, and how race within prison didn't seem to be a big deal in Piper's experience), and not so surprised at others (funding issues for programs in prison).
I never warmed up to Kerman. She veered between matter-of-fact accounts of her experiences, vignettes that didn't seem to have much of a point (they often seemed shoehorned in to add some spice to the narrative, and too many times ended just as they got interesting), and statistics about prisons and the justice system. She had an understanding family, great friends, a fiance who didn't leave her, the money to pay for a decent defense attorney, an education, a job to go to when she got out - in short, everything most of the women she was in prison with didn't have. Aware of her advantages, she talks about how much harder things would have been for her if she had been from a different background. However, I didn't get the impression from the book that the experience really transformed her. Kerman clearly matured between the time of her offense and the writing of the book. However, most of it seemed to happen before her arrest, sentencing and imprisonment, so it didn't leave a lot of big revelations to happen during her incarceration. What she did learn is that prison is hard although it could be worse, that you can make friends with and care about people much different than you, and that even as a money launderer, you contribute to the ongoing problems of addicts and drug offenders filling the legal system. I could guess those things without doing time (or reading this memoir).
Piper's family was extremely supportive of her while she was incarcerated. Her fiance, Larry, made weekly visits to see her. She was very fortunate to have a loving support system outside of the prison's walls. Inside the prison's walls, having a support system proved to be as nurturing and as strong as her own family's.
Right away she was taken under the protective wings of other prisoners. They helped her ease into life at the prison, showing her the ropes.....things that she needed to do and things that she should never do. She formed strong bonds with these women, some of whom she found rough on the outside and gentle on the inside.
She temporarily gets sent to Chicago and is subjected to an entirely different prison environment. She misses her friends and her life at Danbury, but she ends up making the best of a bad situation....even when she encounters a couple of "friends" that were involved with her crime a decade ago.
I was amazed at Piper's strength and character. I was ecstatic when she was able to switch from her electrician's job to painting and construction, which allowed her to partake in painting picnic tables down by a lake. She was so happy to see the water and the boats that she cried. We never realize how much we take for granted every single day.
This is a touching and sometimes hilarious story that I highly recommend. I'm so glad that I read it and will certainly be telling others about it.
I'm so pleased I received this book as an Early Reviewer.
What I did not expect was a book that would make me reflect on the role of and effectiveness of prisons. Kerman's portrayal of prison is not a flattering one. Even in her minimum security federal prison it seems they only give lip service to rehabilitation and education, and that the bureaucracy makes it difficult for even caring prison staff to work effectively. I would have liked Kerman to reflect a little bit more on the shortcomings of our penal system and to ponder alternatives that are both fair and beneficial to convicts. I also wish Kerman would have spent some time (even an epilogue) on her post prison life and what it was like to return to the real world.
Despite those minor shortcomings, Piper Kerman is a strong writer with a straight forward style. I like that she openly acknowledged that her own situation was vastly better than most of those she served with. She had regular visitors, a job and home a home to return to, and an education to fall back on. I very much appreciate that she used her position of privilege to paint a picture of a life and a system that most Americans of a certain lifestyle know nothing about.
When a ten year old mistake (aka crime) lands a skinny, blond city girl behind bars she weathers it with grace and humility. The book focuses on the absurdity of the situations encountered in prison, while wisely avoiding hot button issues like prison reform. Against all odds, Kerman learns her lesson, learns about other people, and successfully makes lemonade from lemons. A wonderfully entertaining read.
Piper Kerman's experiences were both heartbreaking and heartwarming. She was fortunate to have the love and support of so many people on the outside when she entered the prison, a luxury many of the women didn't have. She never took it for granted. Even though her crime was a drug charge from ten years prior and she had since moved on to a law-abiding life with a good job and a wonderful fiancee, she didn't make excuses or consider herself better than anyone else in the prison. She carefully walked the line between avoiding situations that might cause her trouble in prison and forming bonds with the other women who would help her survive the year in prison, perhaps even more so than her family and friends on the outside.
Piper made the best of the situation she was placed in, never wallowing in self-pity but rather finding a way to become strong, healthy and to acknowledge that letting others in and leaning on them is not a weakness.
The other women in Piper's story are a unique cast of characters and many of their stories were heartbreaking as well. Prison, even minimum security, is not a pretty place and I am grateful I've never been in that situation. Piper's is truly a cautionary tale about how all kinds of people can find themselves in a situation they never expected and most of them for much longer than her one-year sentence.
My only frustration while reading the book was the difficulty I had keeping all the women straight in my mind as I was reading. She talked about so many of them and their stories were so interesting, but she would refer to someone again several pages later after not talking about them for a while and sometimes I would forget who they were or why they were important to Piper. I also had some difficulty recalling what all the different acronyms stood for, although I can see the need to use them since the same ones cropped up throughout the story many times.
This book definitely helped me see the convicts and the prison system in a different way. There is so much that could be done to improve prison life. While I agree that convicts don't deserve a luxurious setting, they should be given basic necessities and shouldn't be showering in bug-infested shower stalls. They should be given food that is actually edible. They shouldn't be subject to abuse and sexual harassment by prison guards. It's clear that there is a great deal of room for improvement.
This is definitely an interesting look into life in a women's prison, told from the unlikely perspective of a woman who had left that past behind only to have it come back to haunt her several years later. I recommend it.
Her writing was fluid and easy to follow and made me have empathy for her.