Published April 6, 2010 by Spiegel & Grau
I had chafed within the safe confines of Smith, graduating by a narrow margin, and I longed to experience, experiment, investigate.
Piper Kerman was twenty-three when she graduated college in 1993, and she was hungry for a taste of danger and excitement. When a woman she was dating invited her to become part of an international drug ring, Kerman was “entranced by the illicit adventure” and found herself traveling the world and eventually smuggling more than ten thousand dollars across international borders in the lining of her suitcase. Frightened by what she perceived as a close call—she spent the whole trip worrying that she was about to be caught—Kerman ended the relationship, left the drug ring, and moved to California for a fresh start.
I would sit on the floor of our apartment and ponder what I had done, astonished by how far afield I had wandered and how willing I had been to abandon myself on the journey.
Over the next five years, Kerman built a career as a producer, met a man she wanted to spend her life with, and moved to New York. She never told anyone about what she had done, and she thought that her past really was behind her. But then, out of the blue, two U.S. Customs officers knocked on her door and told her that she was being indicted on charges of drug smuggling and money laundering and had to report to federal court in Chicago. Kerman’s secret was out, and she spent the next five years—that’s right, it took FIVE YEARS of anticipation and anxiety to get to the part where the court sentenced her—breaking the news to family and a few close friends and holding her breath for the day she knew was coming.
On February 4, 2004, more than a decade after her last involvement with the drug ring, Kerman reported to the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut to serve a fifteen-month sentence. Orange is the New Black is the chronicle of her year in women’s prison, and it is one of the most compelling memoirs I’ve read in quite a while.
Kerman recalls the drive to Danbury, the humiliating strip search and intake process, and the overwhelming knowledge that she was walking into an experience that nothing in her life had prepared her for.
I knew that I would have to be brave. Not foolhardy, not in love with risk and danger, not making ridiculous exhibitions of myself to prove that I wasn’t terrified—really, genuinely brave. Brave enough to be quiet when quiet was called for, brave enough to observe before flinging myself into something, brave enough to not abandon my true self when someone else wanted to seduce or force me in a direction I didn’t want to go, brave enough to stand my ground quietly.
Kerman does not sugarcoat or exaggerate the intensity of her first days in prison as she recalls the social pressure and rules—both written and unwritten—that govern life on the inside. Taken in by women who recognize that she is new and are eager to show her the ropes (partially so they can make sure that she will have her bed made properly and be on time for head counts), Kerman is moved by her fellow inmates’ kindness, and the moments she recalls sharing with them make up many of the highlights of Orange is the New Black.
As she settles in, Kerman discovers that time is her biggest enemy, and she struggles to fill her days in hopes of making them pass more quickly. She finds herself entrenched in prison life and involved with a powerful group of women who show her that everything is relative and even in prison, there are moments of pleasure and happiness—sipping root beer floats made with contraband ingredients, receiving mail from loved ones, wearing coveted pajamas given to her by a well-respected inmate, and enjoying weekly visits from her fiance.
Of course, these moments of pleasure are rare, though, and Kerman also finds that prison takes her back to the most basic assumptions about cultural groups and stereotypes. In prison uniforms, absent any other signifier of individuality or identity, Kerman’s fellow inmates are most easily classified by their race, and she notices that each new arrival is greeted by her “tribe” and that the prison system seems intent on manipulating behavior through the creation of in-groups (and their corresponding out-groups). She works hard to get to know the women on the inside on a level deeper than their cultural stereotypes, and she finds herself—an educated white woman, a relative anomaly in prison—in the unique situation of being welcomed by women from several groups. Kerman’s examination of these social groups and her acknowledgment of her own fears and stereotypes make for interesting and often humorous reading.
But Orange is the New Black is more than an upper-class white woman’s memoir of a year spent in prison—it is a critical look at the prison system from someone who has the education, social position, and connections to get the story told.
This is one of the awful truths of incarceration, the fact that the horror and the struggle and the interest of your immediate life behind prison walls drives the “real world” out of your head.
Survival on the inside requires so much time, attention, thought, and anxiety that it seems the system intends to distract inmates from the many ways in which it fails them. The available medical care is so poor that Kerman states “we were fucked if we got sick,” and her visit to the prison doctor for her yearly gynecological check-up is one of the most difficult-to-read passages of the book. While prison jobs help many woman develop useful vocational skills (Kerman becomes quite the electrician during her year of incarceration), the system wholly fails to prepare prisoners for their return to society, as Kerman learns firsthand when she attends a re-entry class that does not even inform prisoners of where to look for jobs or affordable housing.
Kerman knows that she comes from a position of relative privilege, and she identifies the ways in which the system benefits her and works against people who do not have the same racial and economic status. She meets many women whose crimes are similar to her own but who are serving much longer sentences, and she knows that the nature of their crimes cannot account for the difference. And she calls out the system for not being blind to race, class, and economic status (after all, a crime is a crime is a crime, right?).
Prison is quite literally a ghetto in the most classic sense of the word, a place where the U.S. government now 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.
Orange is the New Black is a powerful combination of memoir and social analysis, and Kerman presents a cogent argument for reassessing the way American society conceptualizes the “war on drugs” and the prison system as a whole. The relationships she develops with her fellow inmates, many of whom have struggled with drug addictions, allow her to understand how her crime made her complicit in others’ crimes and suffering, and she uses her position of privilege to give voice to women whose stories would not otherwise be told.
I tore through Orange is the New Black and cannot say enough how well Kerman uses her personal experiences to illustrate the large problems with the U.S. prison system and to make larger meaning out of her year in prison. This book is original, insightful, often very funny, and virtually impossible to put down. As I read, I wondered why this story hadn’t been told before, and I realized that it was because the people in prison—the women Kerman meets and comes to care for—are so rarely in a position to make others listen. The system, Kerman says, tries to make you believe the very worst about yourself, and that message, combined with the social and economic disadvantage from which many criminals come, effectively suppresses and stigmatizes most accounts of prison life.
But when a relatively well-off white woman with a private education, a nice haircut, and a top-drawer lawyer spends a year behind bars and decides to talk about it, people pay attention. Kerman knows that, and she uses her platform and advantage to present a story that can potentially affect many others. 4.75 out of 5.