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Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison Paperback – March 8, 2011
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From Publishers Weekly
Relying on the kindness of strangers during her year's stint at the minimum security correctional facility in Danbury, Conn., Kerman, now a nonprofit communications executive, found that federal prison wasn't all that bad. In fact, she made good friends doing her time among the other women, many street-hardened drug users with little education and facing much longer sentences than Kerman's original 15 months. Convicted of drug smuggling and money laundering in 2003 for a scheme she got tangled up in 10 years earlier when she had just graduated from Smith College, Kerman, at 34, was a self-surrender at the prison: quickly she had to learn the endless rules, like frequent humiliating strip searches and head counts; navigate relationships with the other campers and unnerving guards; and concoct ways to fill the endless days by working as an electrician and running on the track. She was not a typical prisoner, as she was white, blue-eyed, and blonde (nicknamed the All-American Girl), well educated, and the lucky recipient of literature daily from her fiancé, Larry, and family and friends. Kerman's account radiates warmly from her skillful depiction of the personalities she befriended in prison, such as the Russian gangster's wife who ruled the kitchen; Pop, the Spanish mami; lovelorn lesbians like Crazy Eyes; and the aged pacifist, Sister Platte. Kerman's ordeal indeed proved life altering. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the MP3 CD edition.
Just graduated from Smith College, Kerman made the mistake of getting involved with the wrong woman and agreeing to deliver a large cash payment for an international drug ring. Years later, the consequences catch up with her in the form of an indictment on conspiracy drug-smuggling and money-laundering charges. Kerman pleads guilty and is sentenced to 15 months in a federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut. Entering prison in 2004—more than 10 years after her crime—Kerman finds herself submerged in the unique and sometimes overwhelming culture of prison, where kindness can come in the form of sharing toiletries, and an insult in the cafeteria can lead to an enduring enmity. Kerman quickly learns the rules—asking about the length of one’s prison stay is expected, but never ask about the crime that led to it—and carves a niche for herself even as she witnesses the way the prison system fails those who are condemned to it, many of them nonviolent drug offenders. An absorbing, meditative look at life behind bars. --Kristine Huntley --This text refers to the MP3 CD edition.
Top customer reviews
The reader follows the author as the mass of other inmates, a noisy crowd, become individuals with unique personalities. As she learns the group mores the author becomes accepted and valued for what she can contribute. Her job in the facility makes her sought out to repair broken things. Prison cheesecake becomes her speciality for parties.
Inadvertently, the book is a sociological study of the society these diverse individuals create among themselves.
"Some women organized themselves into...family relationships...especially mother-daughter pairs....The younger women relied on their 'moms' for advice, attention, food, commissary loans, affection, guidance, even discipline. If one of the young ones was misbehaving, she might get directed by another irritated prisoner, 'Go talk to your mama and work your s*** out.' Or if the kid was really out of control with her mouth or her radio...the mama might get the request, 'you need to talk to your daughter, 'cause if she don't get some act-right, I'ma knock her out.!'"
The author too becomes part of a family that "exemplified the complex ways that family trees grew behind bars, like topiaries trained into very odd shapes."
Being institutionalized doesn't impede taking advantages of reasons for celebration. The "will to protect and maintain our own humanity despite the prison system's....[ability]....to crush it" blossoms in all-consuming joyfulness on occasion.
There is a storm of emotion when the GED test results are announced and women who have tried and tried to pass it finally succeed. The author, "thought I was going to lose it and start crying right there, and I was not a crier. The release of so much collective happiness in that miserable place was almost too much for me. It was like hot and cold air colliding, creating a tornado right inside the hall."
The third strand that runs through this book is the picture of the prison system. Through the author's honest and compassionate telling of her own and other prisoners' stories the cruelties, stupidities, and indifference of the American penal system are laid bare.
-- A Dominican woman in her 70's, with little English, serving 4 years "for taking phone messages for her drug-dealing male relative."
-- A 69 year old nun serving a long sentence for nonviolent protest at a missile silo in Colorado.
-- The author herself, after conviction, had to wait to begin serving her sentence until the legal issue of someone else was resolved; she was in this limbo for 5 years!!!
Blind vengeance propels the war on drugs as it sweeps up groups of people on "conspiracy charges" so that many of the author's fellow prisoners were serving long sentences based on the total amount of drugs in an operation and not their individual non-violent small role.
The "correctional" system doesn't want to fix anything. It's about "revenge and retribution" rather than "restorative justice." Justice for the author, and many others, would have been better served had she been doing community service rather than corralled into a warehouse.
The author has the insight that no one really ran the prison system. Everyone in correction work just did their job without examining the purpose of the system. Punishment was dealt with in an "offhand and indifferent" manner with the expectation that somehow "confinement alone will create the incentive and the means for an individual to make a change in their life."
Thus, aside from Puppies Behind Bars (raising dogs for service work) there's no real program to learn anything during the months and years in prison.
Thus, the "Pre-Release Program" is like a Saturday Night Live parody.
--To get women ready for release, attendees are pep talked about eating and exercise and "treating your body as a temple" but not a word of where and how to get medical services once released or options for dealing with the temptation to resume old addictions.
--The former warden's secretary offers a talk on Positive Attitude that consists of her struggle to diet.
-- "Housing" is addressed by a man who talks about insulation and siding and choosing a roof. When one of the women asks, "...can you talk a little about how to get an apartment, or if there are any programs we can qualify for...someone told me I should go to a homeless shelter..." he advises her to use the newspaper or a website.
The author fell into the drug trade as an adventure seeker, a go-it-alone stoic. In prison she discovers "the vilest thing" about herself "was an indifference to the suffering of others." She also learns that she "was in fact good...more than capable of helping other people...eager to offer what I had, which was more than I had realized...Best of all I had found other women...who could teach me how to be better."
The author had total support from her family and scores of friends during her time in prison, and a good job waiting for her upon release. Most of the other women in prison are not as fortunate.
When the door of the prison is opened to "freedom" the woman released is usually no better prepared to deal with health, employment, housing, and family than before she was jailed. Her life of "freedom" will be, as always, catch as catch can.
Little wonder that in America "there is basically a revolving door between our urban and rural ghettos and the formal ghetto of our prison system."
Warning to readers: prepare for tears; prepare for outrage.
First off, yes, there is a television series based on the real life experiences of the author. Someone posted "they're so different, the tv show and the book - I don't know which is real!" The book is real, the show has added violence, drama, sex, otherwise it might be uninteresting to watch someone sit in a jail cell episode after episode. I enjoyed picking out the details from the real life account and seeing how they were woven into the more dramatic television show.
There were also critiques that the author comes off as boastful, self centered, etc. Yes, she's an educated middle class white female, and she mentions this often, but it references unfair stereotypes regarding race - it is not boastful, but an observation that white women are somehow not as expected by society to be in prison. I enjoyed her candid approach, there's humor, but also depth, as the author comes to terms with the crime she committed years prior to her incarceration.
It was a thoughtful and interesting read. She focuses on the day to day life in prison, interesting anecdotes, and stories of those she met...and makes you think about our prison system and question its effectiveness.
My one critique was the abruptness of the ending, I would like to know more about how she settled back into her everyday life following her release.