Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison (Review)

March 10, 2014

Book cover for "Orange is the New Black" by Piper Kerman.Title: Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison

Author: Piper Kerman

Narrator: Cassandra Campbell

Publication Year: 2010

Pages: 352 (audio length: 11 hours 14 minutes)

Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir

Source: Audiobook version purchased from Audible.com

From the cover:

With a career, a boyfriend, and a loving family, Piper Kerman barely resembles the reckless young woman who delivered a suitcase of drug money 10 years ago. But that past has caught up with her. Convicted and sentenced to 15 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 women 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, where the uneasy relationship between prisoner and jailer is constantly and unpredictably recalibrated. 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, Orange is the New Black offers a rare look into the lives of women in prison, why it is we lock so many away, and what happens to them when they’re there.

I have a confession to make: I watched the NetFlix series based on this book before I picked it up. I hadn’t really had much of an interest in reading it, to be honest, despite my usual taste for memoir. After watching some really fantastic acting, though, I decided to give Kerman a try.

Orange is the New Black is a personal story of one woman’s experience in the American prison system, and I do emphasize one woman’s experience. She doesn’t really go into much detail about the lives of the other women she’s incarcerated with. Whether this is because of the “code” in prison that she mentions repeatedly in the book – you don’t ask someone what they’re in for – or because it’s a personal story, I’m not really sure. But, for me at least, I found myself curious as to why the other women were in there with her, particularly the ones with longer sentences but who are in the minimal-ish security facility anyways.

Some of the things Kerman writes about in the book, I found fascinating. It was interesting to me, in particular, to read about the way that she adapted to the rules and routines of being in the system, and how she managed to deal with knowing that she, unlike quite a few of the others around her, was there for the first time and probably the last. I think this is what makes her story both unique and less valuable as an “insider’s look at prison”: Kerman isn’t the “typical” American prisoner.

Before I got around to watching the NetFlix television series a few months ago, I had heard lots of critique about it – and about Kerman and her book itself. In particular, I heard that it was a very privileged look at the prison system, and that it wasn’t really giving an authentic look at the experiences of most women who go to prison in America. This is definitely something that I found both as I was reading the book and watching the series. I mean, really … how many people in prison today in the US self-surrendered after having a going-away dinner with their fiance and best friends, complete with sipping wine?

To be honest, though, I think this was more a critique of the book. Maybe, when the series was being done, they took this critique into account, because there was definitely a more diverse look at the other prisoners in the series than there was in the memoir. I actually felt like I knew a bit about the people I was watching, whereas in the book, I just felt like they were extras there to populate Kerman’s backdrop.

If you’re interested in the prison system, or you liked the tv series, give Orange is the New Black a shot. It’s definitely not the best memoir I’ve read, but it’s still an interesting look at one person’s life and experience.

Rating:

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