Book: Orange Is the New Black

Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman (2010)

Inspiration to Read:
I purchased this for my Kindle while intentionally picking out I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai (only reason I’m not writing about that book is because I don’t think it’s fair to start with a book I finished over a month ago). I intended to read nonfiction over the holidays, and Kerman’s headline caught my eye.

Kerman frequently surprised me. I’m uncertain how much shock is to blame on the difference from plot points in the show with the same title or my general ideas of women’s prisons. Kerman is extraordinarily self-aware and demonstrates a lot of maturity as she tells her story, beginning with her final years in college when she meets Nora, a drug supplier, and through her 13 months in a low-security prison in Connecticut.

Kerman meets a motley crowd of women in prison, and describes how some resist and others persist through the drudgery and monotony of confinement. She is immediately welcomed and protected by the white ‘tribe,’ and women of other races separate into their tribes. Once inmates can prove that they are not ‘wacko,’ they are welcome to mix between tribes. Not without trial or several mistakes, Kerman adjusts to the prison fishbowl, begins her federally-assigned work, and makes friends. She mostly survives by running several miles everyday on the prison track.

I was mostly curious why Kerman wrote this book the entire time I was reading it. It was a quick and good read: It’s fascinating and sometimes humbling to realize the stressful, chaotic, impersonal, and intertwining lives that inmates lead, but I often wanted to know what Kerman experienced next. However, she is very realistic about her experience and her privilege in her writing. She was always aware that her circumstances were far better than those of her fellow inmates: She is white; had one of the shortest sentences; had a home and a job to return to; and her parents, fiance, and many friends wrote, sent provisions, and visited frequently. Her college education and observations of the trials of others were enough to give Kerman some guilt, I believe. She did honestly care for many of the women she met, and if they left during her tenure or when she left she and they were truly saddened. I think that Kerman wrote this book for several reasons, but one of them was to expose the gross  injustices that inmates face. She recognized that her fellow inmates saw it, recognized it, and were frustrated by it, but did not know how to address that pain. Kerman’s education provided an outlet for that. I believe that she exposes the bureaucratic faults of federal prisons–it is transparent when she is sharing factual details that are revealing and when she is sharing her opinion in the penal system–for the good that it can do legally and for the good that it can do for the women she served time with.

Kerman’s book is very revealing, and very good. Some of the stories that she shares of her wacky experiences with the odd  habits of prison are very funny. Other events that she shares are chilling. She has had several years to reflect on her experience, and I believe she is poised and matured in her writing.

(Please note: I was not paid to write about “Orange Is the New Black.” I obtained the book by my own means and am just a fan.)

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