Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

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

Posted by nliakos on December 4, 2014

by Piper Kerman (Spiegel & Grau 2011)

I have never seen the Netflix series based on this book, and I knew almost nothing about it when a colleague lent it to me this week as I was finishing The Last Hunger Season. But it looked interesting, so I read it. It was interesting.

Piper Kerman led a pretty cushy life punctuated by some post-college international thrill-seeking. The thrills included some illegal activities which eventually caught up with her, years after she had left that life behind her and had a career and a serious boyfriend. She was arrested, tried, pled guilty, and after some years of supervised freedom while ostensibly waiting to testify at the trial of a co-defendant, was incarcerated at the federal women’s prison in Danbury, Connecticut. This book tells the story of her time in Danbury.

Kerman was not a typical prisoner: well-educated and white, with a supportive fiancé and family on the outside and expensive legal representation. Her fellow prisoners were mostly poor black and Hispanic women with court-appointed lawyers who had no time for them. Kerman learned to appreciate her good fortune and also to understand that she was not better than those other women, some of whom she became very close to.

She describes the ups and downs of prison life–mostly downs, yes, but punctuated with supportive, caring relationships among the women, who make the best of a bad situation (with creative decorations for birthdays and Christmas, inventive Halloween costumes, and workarounds like “prison cheesecake” and maxipads used for cleaning). She reminds us that unlike her, most of the other women she met would not find a place to live and a job waiting for them upon their release, and she shows just how ill-prepared they are to meet the obstacles they will surely face “on the streets”.

In one of the startling statistics in the book, Kerman points out that the United States, with five percent of the world’s population, incarcerates 25 percent of its prisoners, and that in choosing to “support” such an extensive prison system, we are choosing not to support schools, libraries, community centers, and other institutions that might help people to avoid prison in the first place.

A very worthwhile book.

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