Friday, April 7, 2017

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman

Reviewed by Kristin

The Netflix Original show Orange is the New Black has become a pop culture phenomenon with over 6.7 million viewers watching the latest season during its opening weekend in June 2016.  Seen as an edgy commentary on the culture of incarcerated women, of whom there are 1.2 million in the United States, the show has drawn in binge viewers who care passionately about the characters and their storylines.  With this in mind, I decided to listen to the book Orange is the New Black on a recent solitary road trip.  Now, I would much rather read a book than listen to one, but distracted driving is frowned upon, so I downloaded several books from the Tennessee Regional eBook and Audiobook Download System (R.E.A.D.S.) and hit the road.

In 1993, Piper Kerman travelled from Chicago to Paris to Belgium with a checked suitcase full of drug money at the request of her lover.  Kerman was nervous and very uncomfortable with this task, although she had been keeping company with Nora Jansen, travelling around the world while Jansen worked with an international drug cartel.  Naïve?  Perhaps.  Nonetheless, Kerman says that she soon decided to make a break and returned to the United States, cutting all ties with anyone involved in the drug operation.

Five years later Kerman was notified by U.S. Customs officers that she had been indicted in federal court on charges of drug smuggling and money laundering.  In that time her life had changed dramatically.  She was working as a freelance producer in New York and engaged to be married.  Although indicted in 1998, the federal case dragged on for several years and it was 2003 before Kerman was sentenced to fifteen months in prison.

Now comes the part that everyone pictures when hearing the title of the book—a young, Ivy League educated, white woman goes to prison and finds herself in an orange jumpsuit.  Even though she read all the books about going to prison, Kerman found herself in a bureaucratic system for which she was totally unprepared.  From not knowing the proper procedure to put money in her commissary account, to not knowing how to make her bunk to pass inspection, to mistakenly complaining about the food to the head inmate chef, Kerman was fearful and completely lost.

In time, Kerman adjusted and discovered that it was okay to make friends.  Small kindnesses helped her through her first weeks and eventually she came to the point of being able to help others.  The uncertainty and powerlessness she felt were difficult as the months dragged on, but she was able to find her place.

Fortunately for Kerman, her stay in a federal women’s correctional facility was much less eventful than her fictional counterpart’s experiences in the Netflix show.  Both the book and the show depict problems that exist in the United States correctional system.  Overcrowding, lack of resources, racial rivalries, lack of adequate staff training and organization are all problems faced by many if not all facilities.  But perhaps Kerman has made a larger audience aware of these issues and the greater visibility will inspire positive reforms.  This enlightening look at the inside of a women’s prison was an interesting way for me to pass the miles.

(Be sure to check out what titles are available in both e-book and audiobook format at R.E.A.D.S. at )

Note:  The first year of this blog, we ran a review from Nancy about surviving jail.  As with most of her reviews, it was both memorable and hilarious.    You can read it here.

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