Orange Is the New Black = 58 down, 42 to go

10 Jul

Other nonfiction
Orange Is the New Black
Piper Kerman
320 pages

A womens prison is a subculture completely off my radar. So  I was intrigued by the concept of this book when I learned the author is now a VP at a Washington, D.C. communications firm. Heck, I’m in PR, so I was trying to get my mind around how a PR pro ended up behind bars.

Years after leading a reckless life that led her across multiple continents, Piper Kerman receives a visit from federal agents set to arrest her for a 10-year-old crime. When they knock on her door, she is living the life of a responsible adult with a career, adoring boyfriend and an NYC apartment. After accepting a plea deal on drug smuggling and money laundering charges, she heads to federal prison.

The book follows her from the initial fear, to learning the ins and outs of surviving and thriving behind bars, to making friends with women that would, under normal circumstances, likely be outside of her circle of contacts. She is lucky to have family and friends and a boyfriend who will become her husband stand by her side throughout the process. This is in direct contrast to many of her fellow prison mates who have little or no outside support systems.

She comes in contact with a multitude of personalities during her incarceration – ranging from very angry, to very normal, to very religious. For the extremely faithful, she shares this description, which I think many of us who are not fans of others who blatantly, loudly push their religion on others:

Some of the faithful had a distinct aspect of roostering, loudly proclaiming that they were going to pray on a number of topics, how God was walking behind them through their incarceration, how Jesus loved sinners and so on. Personally, I thought that one could thank the Lord at a lower volume and perhaps less-congratulation.

One of the items I enjoyed was that one of the constants during her stay was books, a saving grace I can appreciate from this side of jail. Her friends and family were constantly sending her books and magazines, which she in turn was able to share with her fellow prisoners.

Kerman also had an inordinate amount of time to spend on self reflection, trying to understand and comprehend the impact of her crime. While I found myself mired in some of her introspection, I thought this observation was astute and a good way to end this post:

What made me finally recognize the indifferent cruelty of my own past wasn’t the constraints put on my by the U.S. government, nor the debt I had amassed for legal fees, nor the fact that I could not be with the man I loved. It was sitting and talking and working with and knowing the people who suffered because of what people like me had done. None of these women rebuked me – most of them had been intimately involved in the drug business. Yet for the first time I really understood how my choices made me complicit in their suffering. I was the accomplice to their addiction.

Update – July 19, 2010: Piper Kerman recently did an interview with 48 Hours on her book. Here’s one of her observations from that conversation:

I’m not particularly interested in sympathy. I’m much more interested in empathy; lack of empathy lies at the heart of every crime, and the ability to confront and take responsibility for the harm one has done to others is what allows people to change.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing about our prison system or the way sentences are structured that addresses this: prisoners are removed from the community, warehoused, and then dumped back into the community. It’s very rare that prisoners actually contend with the harm they have caused directly, whether to an individual or to their community, either because the person happens to be reflective or because they take place in one of the rare restorative justice programs.


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