Book Review: Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black came to my attention because of the Netflix show of the same name. I devoured the show’s first season and, anxious for more, decided to read Kerman’s memoir.

The show is not without its critics, which are justified in their complaints about the show: It can play into racist tropes; it puts at its heart and encourages us to root for a protagonist who is supremely privileged compared to her poorer, darker peers; it creates outrageous situations that seem implausible. All this is true, and yet, I love the show because of the ways it does humanize women in prison and sheds light on the bizarre, often immoral power dynamics between guards and inmates.

I spent years volunteering in prisons, co-facilitating theatre workshops and advocating formreform to the prison industrial complex that exists in America, so I’m drawn to prisoners’ stories, especially those that fall outside the standard Oz mentality of what prison is like.

And Orange is the New Black, the memoir, is highly fulfilling in this regard. Detractors of the show should read Kerman’s book: It is much more humanizing, big-hearted, and moving than the series, and it is a book that truly makes the readers stop and question what we as a nation are doing incarcerating so many Americans for non-violent, drug-related offenses, disproportionately parceled out to poor people of color.

Further, Piper Kerman is a far more interesting protagonist than Piper Kernan of the show. She is stoic, sharp, and compassionate, much more aware than the deer-in-headlights, privileged Kernan presented by Netflix.

The biggest difference between the show and the memoir is that the memoir presents the community of women at the federal institution at Danbury as much tighter-knit and much more important to Kerman’s sanity in getting through her sentence. (In the show, the relationships are often either hostile and violent or overtly sexual.) The descriptions of the relationships between the women, who range from young college-educated folks like Kerman to older women doing more serious time to women of all ages caught up in cycles of poverty and the drug trade, are quite moving. Kerman describes, for instance, the day her bunkie, Miss Natalie, a dignified older woman of Jamaican descent, finally gets her GED, and it brought me to tears. She also shares with us the celebrations for inmates’ birthdays, which include ingeniously crafted prison food and handmade gifts, or the celebrations around women getting out, and it’s clear that this community of women, many of whom society has deemed worthless, is a type of family that helps all the inmates get through their sentences.

These connections also help Kerman understand what she, as a drug mule, contributed to the suffering of others: addicts whose habits she indirectly helped sustain or the role that drug dealers play in further destroying communities that have been torn apart by drugs. She writes, “The vilest thing I had located, within myself and within the system that held me prisoner, was an indifference to the suffering of others…If there was one thing that I had learned in the Camp, it was that I was in fact good…I was more than capable of helping other people. I was eager to offer what I had, which was more than I had realized…Best of all, I had found other women here in prison who could teach me how to be better.”

Kerman also has support of her family and friends on the outside, something she is quick to point out is, sadly, not the case for many of the women doing time with her. Her outside community provides her unwavering support, providing her with books, magazine subscriptions, money, and more.

Ultimately, Orange is the New Black is intended as much as a call to action against such laws as mandatory minimums and the whole mentality of warehousing prisoners as it is a personal account of one woman’s time in prison. In the reader’s guide to the paperback edition, Kerman is blunt in saying, “The popular image of prison, Oz and Cops, is very narrow—and intended to justify the strengths of the prison system and its out-of-control growth. If everyone in prison is an uncontrollable and irredeemably violent person, then it’s totally justified to have a massive and massively expensive prison system because, you know, public safety at any cost. But if in fact everyone in prison is not irredeemably violent, if their lives have meaning and value, then suddenly you really call into question whether our government is doing the right thing.”

This memoir very much forces readers to ask this question. I appreciate this intention, and it makes for a powerful read: we get to, for a short while, share a life we would never hope to have, and we come away edified and better for it.

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