Orange Is The New Black
My Year In A Women’s Prison
by Piper Kerman
” As Nina headed down the hill to the FCI, I felt a real sense of loss. She was the first real friend I had made, and I wouldn’t have any contact with her at all. Prison is so much about the people who are missing from your life and who fill your imagination. Some of the missing were just across the prison grounds — I knew a half-dozen women who had sisters or cousins down the hill in the high-security prison. One day while walking back to work after lunch, I glimpsed Nina through the back gate of the FCI and went crazy jumping up and down and waving. She saw me and waved too. The truck that patrolled the prison perimeter screeched to a halt between us.
“Cut that shit out!” came sharply from the guard inside. “
If you are a subscriber to the multi-faceted and revolutionary streaming site Netflix, then the odds are that you’ve seen Orange is the New Black. The popular show chronicling the lives of women in the prison system is currently the most watched show on the pay-for-play programming service and it’s not hard to understand why. The lives of the women involved are richly woven together, their stories unique and sometimes heartbreaking, and viewers binge watch season after season with impending hope, fear, and optimism.
Orange is the New Black was adapted for television via a book, as most good programs and movies are. The lead character in the show is based upon the real-life author of the memoir, Piper Kerman.
As a freshly graduated 20-something in the early 1990’s, Piper was living in New York and trying to figure out what to do with herself. As all of her friends begin to bundle themselves off into professional jobs in the city or head out of the country for backpacking expeditions, she finds herself prowling around with a group of stylish and laid-back lesbians, one of which catches her eye. Piper falls into step with playful, wisecracking, and older Nora Jansen, (based on the real life Cleary Wolters) and begins to follow her around the world like the proverbial puppy dog. They take exotic vacations to sandy and sunny destinations, all on Nora’s dime. . . and the dimes, they are a’plenty.
Soon enough, Piper learns where Nora is getting all of her money. She’s a drug smuggler, running a game for a drug lord who is flying under the radar somewhere in Africa, and Piper is completely swept up in the intrigue, eventually running a few loads of cash herself. But once the novelty and adrenaline burns off, it doesn’t take long for the whole scene to make Piper uncomfortable and she hightails it out of there, finding her stomach is just not made for the criminal lifestyle.
It is nearly a decade later when Piper receives a visit from the FBI, learning that she has been indicted on charges of drug trafficking and money laundering, having been named in the case by prior witnesses and other criminals involved, and after another six years of waiting, she is finally sentenced to fifteen months in Danbury, a federal prison in Connecticut. The hip and adventurous girl of 22 grew up to become a mature and law-abiding citizen, engaged to a Jew, and a freelance producer living in New York, but Piper must do the time for her crimes of her youth. She self-surrenders to the prison after weeks of binge eating her favorite foods and drinking as much good coffee as she can, and becomes Prisoner #11187-424 in a place full of women from all walks of life.
Prison is not what Piper was expecting – but it’s not as bad as movies made it out to be either. She’s not in a place with murderers or hardened and seasoned criminals. Most of her dorm and bunk mates are drug offenders like herself, and mostly for the same offenses she carried out. She meets women from multiple avenues of life and in a variety of stages in age, and she is surprised at the camaraderie and heavily maintained levels of respect the women all share for one another. There are strict guidelines to follow – newbies are not allowed to make their own beds, don’t ever get caught out of your dorm during count, never, ever go into the shower without shoes on, negative opinions about the food are forbidden, cleaning on cleaning day is not an option – and Piper is able to navigate her time with integrity, making unexpected friends a long the way.
” Larry came to see me every week, and I lived for those visits — they were the highlight of my life in Danbury, a chest-filling affirmation of how much I loved him. My mother drove six hours round-trip until I begged her to come every other week. I saw more of her during the eleven months I was at Danbury than I had in all my previous adult years.
Yoga Janet and Sister Platte always had lots of visitors, aging counterculture hipsters and rosy-cheeked lefties in homespun Guatemalan cottons, respectively. Sister Platte was frustrated by the BOP’s effective censorship of her visiting list — international peace figures had tried to gain permission to visit her and had been denied.
Some women never got visits because they had effectively said goodbye to the outside world. No children, no parents, no friends, nobody. Some of them were halfway around the world from home, and some of them didn’t have a home. Some women stated flatly that they did not want their people to se them in a place like this. In general, the longer you were down, the fewer and farther between were your visits. I worried about my bunkie, Natalie, finishing her eight-year bid; she spoke to her young son on the phone every night and received many letters but didn’t have a single visit in the year we lived together. I observed the unspoken privacy wall we erected between us in our seven-by-ten-foot space, and never asked. “
Orange is the New Black, the memoir, is not nearly as interesting as the show. The author tends to bog the reader down with statistics and insists upon pushing her agenda – proclaiming that prisoners are not treated as well as they should be (although why she is complaining I have no idea. She had everything she needed and almost all of what she wanted during her 15 month stint) and most prisoners do not deserve to be locked away in prison in the first place. I found that part of her agenda to be a bit hypocritical, as she was a drug trafficker (albeit, a minor one) and helped put drugs on the streets, and she was locked up with several addicts of whom she felt sorry for. I don’t think that the author really thought about the effects she had on society by her actions in the drug arena, and how drugs being available on the streets creates a ripple that effects not only the user but also their families and friends. It’s ironic that she did not see the connection, seeing as how many families she saw in Danbury – not only as inmates but also in the visiting room. She complained over and over about having to serve her time for crimes that were long since in the past, and I think she completely missed the point as to why she was in prison in the first place. She tended to believe that since she was now a “good person” and a law abiding citizen, her crimes of the past should somehow be absolved and that putting her into the system was a waste of time and tax payers money. I’m not sure I agree with that. The only time Piper truly seems to understand and regret her crimes is when she is denied a furlough to visit her dying grandmother. And even then, she focuses more on how unfair it is that she cannot leave and have her visit, and less on the reason WHY she is there in the first place.
” Southern-proper and birdlike but possessing a stern, formidable personality, my grandmother had been a constant figure in my life A child of West Virginia who grew up in the Depression with two brothers and then raised four sons, she had little idea what to do with a young girl, her eldest grandchild, and I was scared of her. I remained in awe of her, although as I got older, we developed an easier rapport. She spoke frankly to me in private about sex, feminism, and power. She and my grandfather were dumbstruck and horrified by my criminal misadventures, and yet they never let me forget that they loved me and worried about me. The one thing that I feared most about prison was that one of them would die while I was in here.
I pleaded with my father on the pay phone — she would be fine, she would get better, she would be there when I came home He didn’t argue back, just said, “Write her.” I was on a regular schedule of writing short, cheery updates to my grandparents, reassuring them that I was fine and couldn’t wait to see them when I got home. Now I sat down to write a different kind of letter, one that tried to convey how much she meant to me, how much she had taught me, how I wanted to emulate her rigor and rectitude, how much I loved and missed her. I couldn’t believe I had screwed up so badly, to be in this place when she needed me, when she was sick and maybe dying.
Immediately after posting the letter, I asked the Camp secretary for a furlough request form. “Were you raised by your grandma?” she asked brusquely. When I said no, she told me there was no point in giving me the form — I would never be granted a furlough for a grandparent. I sharply said that I was furlough-eligible and would make the request anyway.
“Suit yourself,” she snapped. “
Kerman also complains a lot about the exit strategy for prisoners, and how they are not set up to succeed. They are not taught the skills of obtaining a job, a home, health insurance, or at the very least – a stable environment after leaving the confines of the prison. This is something I can agree with, unlike Kerman’s stance on drug offenders and/or minor crime offenders not having to serve real time. Piper also apparently does not agree with the stoic and cold way that guards treat the prisoners, although I cannot think of how else a guard could treat someone in their care. Being kind can be seen as a weakness and be taken advantage of and the people incarcerated are in fact, proven criminals, no matter what for. I’m not sure what Piper was expecting from her handlers when she was locked up, but the prison guards can’t very well spend their time playing dominos or checkers with their wards. In fact, guards are forbidden from asking anything personal to the inmates under their care, and as this is a women’s prison and most of the guards are male, being overly friendly also opens the door for inappropriate relationships. Kerman spent pages and pages going on and on about one guard in particular who made a crude comment towards her and I had to wonder why she just couldn’t let it go – if the same comment had been said to her on a New York street or subway, she would have laughed it off and moved on with her life.
All in all, I give Orange is the New Black, the memoir, 3 out of 5 stars. While I know that it is critically acclaimed, I got tired of her diatribes on the unfairness of prison, especially as she had an endless supply of money on her tab for commissary, had multiple visits each week the entire time she was an inmate (oh, sorry, she did complain at length about the time her fiancee did not come and visit her because he had a job interview), had more books and mail than she could read, and pretty much got her way any time she actually tried. Prison isn’t a vacation, after all – maybe someone should have told Piper that before she went away to “camp.”
I’d recommend it if you’ve got 48 hours to plow through this short book (its only 300 pages) and are curious about the real Piper and her real story, but if you’re reading it to gain insight into anything else you will be disappointed. A few notable characters from the television series do make an appearance, but they are far and few between and are not elaborated upon.