Monday, August 25, 2014

Orange is the New Black

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

Piper used to run drug money for her then-girlfriend. 4 years after she got out of the game (when the girlfriend asked her to start running drugs, too) she was arrested. They also charged her with conspiracy and was subject to harsh mandatory minimum laws, so she plead guilty to hope for leniency at sentencing. She then waited. The US wanted to try the head of the operation, but needed to extradite him and wanted Kerman to testify against him as a civilian, not a prisoner. 6 years after pleading guilty, Kerman was sentenced to 15 months in minimum security.

This memoir focuses a bit on her life before Danbury, but mostly looks at her year in prison and what she learned about herself, the institution, and the societal and political structures we have in place to keep landing people there. Kerman does not have a lot of sympathy for our drug sentencing laws--especially the prosecutorial catch-all of the conspiracy charge. She knows how lucky she was in having the resources to have good legal counsel and saw many, many, many women who did a lot less than she did go down for a lot more time.

It is pretty eye-opening to the realities of the prison system--how it sets people up to fail, how it doesn’t actually fix our issues, but also the camaraderie underneath as people turn to each other to build family and support mechanisms in order to survive (mostly emotionally, though a bit physically).

One thing I appreciate about Kerman is she never denies that she did wrong. She never says she didn’t deserve to go to prison. In fact, it was in prison that she finally came face-to-face with the realities of the drug trade--not the people who go down for being in it, but the addicts and the what addiction does to people, families, and communities. And she doesn’t turn away from facing it and dealing with her shame and guilt (both moral and legal) head-on.

It’s an easy read, written in short sections and vignettes, part personal story, part character sketches of the people and scenes around her. The pacing works really well to move it ahead quickly. That said, it would benefit from tighter editing. I think many were originally written as a series of essays, and so some characters are introduced with the exact same language multiple times while others show up out of left field with no context given.

But, let’s be honest--I picked this up because I’m a fan of the show and wanted to check out the source material. So, how does the book compare? Well, book-Piper has a much better head on her shoulders than TV-Piper. She’s much more aware of her privilege and also knows how to keep her head down to avoid trouble and extra time. I often want to smack TV-Piper up against the head with a clue-stick when it comes to socioeconomic issues, but not so much with book-Piper (but, book-Piper also has the benefit of hindsight). Book-Larry is also much more together than TV-Larry.

Also, not surprisingly, there is a lot less drama in the book than the show. While Piper does eventually come face-to-face with her ex-girlfriend, it’s not until the end, and there are no lingering attraction issues. We also don’t get a good look at many of the other women in Danbury with Piper. Some of the nicknames are the same (Pennsatucky, Big Boo, and Delicious instead of Tastee) but they don’t have backstories and often the personalities we see on screen are nothing like the glimpses we see in the book. Other characters don’t have names, but you see some character traits to make them recognizable (such as the Russian kitchen boss, or the strict, older bunkmate, the aging hippie who teaches yoga and the activist nun) but the stories aren’t quite the same. On the reasons is in prison, you don’t ask, so Kerman just didn’t know the backstory of a lot of her fellow inmates.

I do recommend it to most people, but especially fans of the show. It’s fascinating and a fun read that doesn’t bog down, despite the repetition issues I mention above. Also, if you do watch the show, it’s really interesting to see which parts are TV and which parts are actually true.

Book Provided by... my local library

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