Elevate Difference

Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison

Piper Kerman recounts the nightmare that is the judicial system in her memoir Orange Is the New Black. This is a gentle introduction to life behind bars compared to the stories of other less fortunate prisoners. Kerman spent one year of her life in a minimum-security federal women's prison in Connecticut for money laundering. Surprisingly, the worst events didn't even happen within the prison itself. She was indicted on a minor drug charge committed ten years prior; she then had to wait another five years to even be sentenced.

Her jail experience wasn't as bad as she thought it would be, though it was no vacation. Piper was subjected to humiliating strip searches, strict rules, nonsensical regulations, verbal abuse, and sexual harassment by her boss while she was working hard as a prison electrician. She later had to finish her yearlong sentence by traveling via the notorious Con Air, and staying at other worse prisons in order to testify. On the (very slim) bright side, she learned vital life lessons from other prisoners. Kerman recalls these women and her friendships with them through tender sentimentality and brutally succinct detail.

I felt very touched by the solidarity of prisoners, as well as the descriptions of holidays and birthdays spent in prison. The women found joy doing one another's hair and nails. They also enjoyed craft projects, such as tailoring their prison uniforms, creating blankets for family, and (on one funny occasion) a crocheted yarn replica of a penis as a gag gift for another prisoner. They also cooked with the few resources they had, and a recipe for Prison Cheesecake is included in the book.

Most importantly, the author owns up to her own personal privilege. Piper is a self-described "blond-haired, blue-eyed, bohemian WASP," and a Smith College graduate. She realizes how infuriating the treatment from the system was for her, and how it wasted years of her life. However, she often proclaims how much worse it would have been if she were not a privileged white person with a private lawyer. She feels for her fellow prisoners, most of whom face dismal options and impossible challenges. Prison does little to educate offenders of their crimes and does not prepare them for the outside world once they are finally released.

In reality, prison does little to rehabilitate those who commit non-violent crimes, and there seems to be little distinction between the treatment of non-violent and violent offenders. In this memoir, it is noted that the minimum and maximum security prisons were within close proximity of each other and often traded inmates back and forth. I agree with Kerman that those who commit non-violent crimes would be better remedied, and more beneficial to the community, if they were ordered to do multiple years of community service instead of traumatic and expensive ($30,000 per year per inmate) prison time.

Orange Is the New Black is engaging, educational, moving, irritating, funny, morose, and extremely hard to put down.

Written by: Jacquie Piasta, May 4th 2010