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Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison Paperback – March 8, 2011
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“Fascinating . . . The true subject of this unforgettable book is female bonding and the ties that even bars can’t unbind.”—People (four stars)
“I loved this book. It’s a story rich with humor, pathos, and redemption. What I did not expect from this memoir was the affection, compassion, and even reverence that Piper Kerman demonstrates for all the women she encountered while she was locked away in jail. I will never forget it.”—Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love
“This book is impossible to put down because [Kerman] could be you. Or your best friend. Or your daughter.”—Los Angeles Times
“Moving . . . transcends the memoir genre’s usual self-centeredness to explore how human beings can always surprise you.”—USA Today
“It’s a compelling awakening, and a harrowing one—both for the reader and for Kerman.”—Newsweek
About the Author
Piper Kerman is vice president of a Washington, D.C.–based communications firm that works with foundations and nonprofits. A graduate of Smith College, she lives in Brooklyn.
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The real Piper, whose last name is Kerman and not Chapman, didn't seem as conniving or crazy as the TV show Piper. She didn't take part in a dirty panties operation, didn't do her time with Alex Voss (only a few short weeks when they were testifying in Chicago), and never got starved by the head kitchen worker. As an avid reader, I get it - the book is always different than when Hollywood takes over and makes dramatic effect on it.
The book was very informative - it displayed women bonding in a situation that is less than desirable for most of the human population. While most women, when put together with other women in cramped up places usually proves as challenging and scary, Piper Kerman talked about the positives when it came to serving time together. She included many details that the show leaves out - it was nice to actually get in her head and feel the emotions of doing time.
I'm giving it 4 stars because it took me a little longer to finish than other books. While not a bad book, there were parts where I had a hard time focusing because it felt repetitive and unnecessary. If you were into the TV show, check this out. While there are shades of similarities, the book is extremely different than what Netflix has shared with us.
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.
Piper Kerman's real-life story chronicling her year in prison is insightful and thought-provoking.
At times the writing impressed me, like this vivid description:
"Miss Sanchez had long Frito-chip fingernails painted Barbie pink."
There are interesting insights into prison life.
"Prison is quite literally a ghetto in the most classic sense of the word, a place where the US government not puts not only the dangerous but also the inconvenient--people who are mentally ill, people who are addicts, people who are poor and uneducated and unskilled. Meanwhile, the ghetto in the outside world is a prison as well, and a much more difficult one to escape from. In fact, there is basically a revolving door between our urban and rural ghettos and the formal ghetto of our prison system."
My favorite "character" is the Russian wife of a mobster, Pop. Pop is the head cook, and gives invaluable advice to Piper.
This story makes the reader inevitably wonder how she would handle imprisonment. I resonated with Piper helping an inmate write a paper. I also would try to fit exercise into my daily routine to stay sane. But really, it's hard to imagine how awful imprisonment would be.
The groping from male guards infuriated me:
"Other male COs were brazen, like the short, red-faced young bigmouth who asked me loudly and repeatedly, "Where are the weapons of mass destruction?" while he fondled me and I gritted my teeth.
There was absolutely no payoff for filing a complaint. A female prisoner who alleges sexual misconduct on the part of a guard is invariably locked in the SHU in "protective custody", losing her housing assignment, program actives, work assignment, and a host of other prison privileges, not to mention the comfort of her routine and friends."
I like how prison statistics (like one out of 100 adults are locked up in the US) are told factually without a preachy tone. I'm also glad Piper mentioned feeling remorse for trafficking drugs--the very drugs that may have been used by her fellow inmates as part of their crimes. I can get behind the decriminalization of drugs for personal use, but I disagree with the notion that drug dealers are never violent.
Overall, a good read, and I'm impressed Piper is giving back by teaching writing to prisoners.