Friday, October 3, 2014

Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman (2010)

As I think we all know by now, the show Orange is the New Black is based on this memoir about an educated white woman engaged to a nice guy who suddenly has to go to prison for something she did many years ago when she was at a very different point in her life. Piper Kerman was convicted on drug charges and had to serve a year at a federal women's prison in Danbury, CT. She describes what it was like in prison, but also provides insight into the system and and the other women caught in it.

I had a tough time keeping track of all her fellow inmates and other characters. There were just so many of them! I also found the prison rules confusing - she did too, so maybe that was intentional - but I felt like many things could have been explained more. For instance, she mentions the complexity of balancing her visitor lists, but I don't know what the challenges were. I know she could only have a certain number of people on the list, but beyond that it was a mystery. How many people could visit in one day? Could several friends come at once? She also mentioned a lot of seemingly-innocuous things being contraband, but then says her friend Rosemarie subscribed to bridal magazines. You can have magazine subscriptions in prison? Perhaps I'm just overly curious about the prison system and how life works there, but I'm left with a lot of questions.

The writing, while not exactly bad, could have been better. For instance, when Piper got a job doing electrical work she explains what it was like being so new to it. Later, she offhandedly mentions that she was shocked once, but doesn't share the story about that, which I thought would have been interesting and worth including.

However, these minor flaws didn't take away from my enjoyment of the book. I was really touched by how these women took care of each other. When Piper first arrived and had no money for commissary, several women gave her toiletries and other necessities. Later, she did the same for newcomers. They had parties for each other, making elaborate culinary concoctions though they had very little to work with and it seemed like a huge pain in the ass. And they got each other through their prison time the by being good, supportive friends.

I watch the show, so of course I couldn't help but compare them. The book is pretty different, and honestly not as good as the show, but there is still a lot that is the same. I couldn't help but look for familiar characters in the memoir, and many of the characters were clearly based on real people. Obviously lots of creative license was taken with the show to make it more dramatic, and there are a ton of story lines that aren't in the book. One part that did surprise me that wasn't part of the show was just how long Piper had to wait between the time she learned she'd be going to prison and when she actually began to serve her sentence. When someone related to her case was arrested on a warrant, her sentence was delayed while the US tried to extradite the guy because they wanted her to be able to testify before she began to serve. Consequently, she spent six years waiting for the situation to be resolved so she could go to prison and serve her time. Can you imagine knowing you're going to prison and not being able to just do it and get it over with, but having to just wait while it's looming over you? If that's not cruel and unusual punishment, I don't know what is.

Well, actually, a few other things in the book also fell into that category. I'm sure many people in prison must have mental health issues, but the 1400 women at Danbury had to share one psychiatrist and even he was only there for part of one day each week. They were also told that the only health issues that would be addressed were those that were life-threatening. Their food was frequently moldy and one of their bathrooms, nicknamed the Hell-mouth, was regularly infested by maggots. This doesn't seem an environment in which it is easy to stay healthy. Not to mention the inappropriate behavior of some of the guards, who weren't above fondling the women they were supposed to be just frisking. One of the guards would also scream invectives over the loudspeakers all evening, at a loud volume. This all seemed unnecessarily cruel, as though completely losing their freedom wasn't enough of a punishment.

But I was happy to see that the prison staff weren't all as horrible as on the show. Piper's counselor was pretty sympathetic to her situation, once even saying, "You drug people shouldn't even be here." Which I - and many of the prisoners - agree with. Kerman includes some statistics in the text, like the fact that 1 out of every 100 Americans is in prison, which is higher than for any other nation in the world. She also points out that this wasn't always the case, certainly not before the War on Drugs and its mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes. Helpfully, Kerman has included an appendix of resources on justice reform for those who are interested in learning more about prison issues.

There's obviously a lot to talk about here, and this would be a great book for discussion as there are just so many interesting things going on. Although it wasn't a prize-winning piece of literature, it was an enjoyable read that gave me a lot to think about.

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