Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison - Piper Kerman

Summary:  With a career, a boyfriend, and a loving family, Piper Kerman barely resembles the reckless young woman who delivered a suitcase of drug money ten years before.  But that past has caught up with her.  Convicted and sentenced to fifteen months at the infamous federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut, the well-heeled Smith College alumna is now inmate #11187-424—one of the millions of people who disappear “down the rabbit hole” of the American penal system.  From her first strip search to her final release, Kerman learns to navigate this strange world with its strictly enforced codes of behavior and arbitrary rules.  She meets women from all walks of life, who surprise her with small tokens of generosity, hard words of wisdom, and simple acts of acceptance.  Heartbreaking, hilarious, and at times enraging, Kerman’s story offers a rare look into the lives of women in prison – why we lock so many away and what happens to them when they are there. (Summary from back of book).

My Review: I first heard about OITNB when everyone and their dog was squawking about the Netflix show.  About a year ago, I thought I would give it a shot (who doesn’t love a good Netflix binge?), but only made it about five seconds into the show before I decided it wasn’t for me. There’s just something about a show starting with two naked women making out in the shower that got me (and the TV) turned off.  I wasn’t even aware that OITNB was based off a book until I stumbled onto it at a local thrift shop and the blurb on the back caught my eye.  I cautiously thumbed my way to the first page.  It took place in an airport.  *Whew* I figured the book might be better.  It usually is, right?!

At first glance, Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison is decidedly up my alley. I have always been fascinated by experiences outside my realm of understanding and this book offered a glimpse of a world that I hope to better comprehend without actually being compelled there by court order.  I wish I could say that it fulfilled all my expectations, but that wasn’t quite the case.

The author, Piper Kerman, introduced a so many diverse characters in rapid fire throughout the book, that I had a difficult time keeping them straight in my head or feeling their depth.  Thought it was clear that Kerman made meaningful connections with many people in her life and her fellow inmates, I failed to make even a shadow of the same connection that I feel would have let me to invest more deeply in the story.  Despite this disconnect, I did find many aspects of Kerman’s story quite interesting. Whether she was discussing the intricacies of obtaining a prison pedicure, the fine art of smuggling food in one’s pants or imparting tips on how to make prison “eyeliner” or treat chapped lips while fully shackled, I was consistently amazed by the ingenuity of the female prison population in making the best out of a bad situation.  After all, the creativity required to make microwave cheesecake out of pilfered ingredients must not go unappreciated. 

On a more serious note, Kerman’s experiences during incarceration shed light on the desperately flawed prison system, the injustices and humiliations frequently suffered by inmates, and the administration’s apathetic attitude toward providing meaningful rehabilitation services.  At times, I could only shake my head as the absurdity of certain rules kept families apart or deprived women of desperately needed opportunities.  While the author had a healthy support system in place and a job lined up when she got out, it was frustrating to see many of her newfound friends leave the confines of the prison without the necessary skills and opportunities to help them successfully move forward with their lives.

Did I love the book?  No.  To be honest, I’m not even entirely sure that I liked it.  It’s hard to delve into the unpleasantness of long term confinement and feel jolly, you know?!  It was an interesting read.  If nothing else, this memoir serves as a stark reminder that people in prison… are still people, after all.  Most of them have family that love them.  All of them have hopes and dreams for the future.  We can sit back, ignore the problems in the system, and gripe about the results or we can do something to change it and perhaps inject a little more compassion into the system.  Definitely something to think about. 

*SIDENOTE*  In her book, Piper frequently makes mention of reading and often took note of the lack of reading materials available in certain prisons.  If you have some uplifting books you are looking to pass on, why not see if your local jail or prison is running low? It might not seem like much, but I know that if I were on the other side of the bars I would certainly appreciate it.

My rating:  2.75 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  Make no mistake, this book explores a darker world and is peppered with the kind of language you would expect to find in prison (or a very rated R movie.  Discussion of sexual matters was there, but usually only in passing and definitely not a focus of the book.  The author is (or would seem to be) bisexual and talks freely (but not graphically) about past relationships with both men and women.  

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