In Piper Kerman’s 2011 memoir, Orange Is The New Black, Kerman takes the reader “inside” her fifteen-month prison sentence at Danbury Correctional Facility. The memoir has been getting considerable attention since the release of the Netflix series of the same name, which has quickly gathered a cult following, perhaps because of its departure from the memoir (i.e. more drama). What Kerman’s memoir offers is a clear-eyed retelling of her experience interacting with prison culture, the women she meets and eventually grows to love, admire, and respect, and the humbling experience of dealing first hand with the backwards and deeply flawed criminal justice system.
Kerman — as she never lets us forget throughout the memoir — is not what we assume to be the stereotypical inmate. She is blonde-haired, blue-eyed (for some reason, her WASPY appearance is something she can’t seem to get over), and college educated — at Smith, no less! Immediately we want to know, whatever did Kerman do that she couldn’t get out of?
Ten years prior to her incarceration, Kerman was involved with a woman who somehow convinced her to carry a suitcase of money across international borders. While this is all very exciting, Kerman’s motives remain unclear. Allegedly, the woman Nora (Alex on the show) is captivating, mesmerizing, and to a sexually confused post-graduate, completely irresistible. Considering Kerman’s relationship with Nora is what eventually lands her in prison, I found her handling of their relationship to be brief, at best. Granted, we are all somewhat disoriented and generally “lost” after college, but do we all fall into relationships with considerably older drug runners? As Kerman writes, “It wasn’t exactly love at first sight, but in Northampton, to a twenty-two year-old looking for an adventure, she was a figure of intrigue.” I still wanted to know more. What was it that drew Kerman so far in and allowed her to forget her clean, tidy blue-china plated background, her lovely and successful parents? Intrigue seems almost too dull a culprit.
Orange Is The New Black is ultimately readable because of the human connections Kerman forms in prison. We meet a wide variety of characters, all living out the elaborate dance of rituals, rules, and tactics for surviving in a microcosm full of estrogen, rage, and sadness. We learn about prison cuisine, foods prepared primarily with contraband items and baked in the microwave; we learn how women smuggle sex toys in and out how cigarettes are one of the most desired commodities one can have in prison. Kerman shares with us her struggle to find the right group of friends, to navigate the barbed-wire racial boundaries that dominate prisons.
Kerman allows us to see the vulnerability and anguish of these women, many unfairly incarcerated, without outside resources, and separated from their beloved children and families. While Kerman deals deftly with these issues, it is apparent she is an outsider. Her time in the correctional facility is limited, and is augmented with countless visits from friends, family, and her loving fiancé, journalist Larry Smith. (Smith’s article in the New York Times’ Modern Love section about the couple’s relationship is worth reading.) Kerman manages to make due and pass the time unscathed. She becomes a runner, she learns how to be an electrician as part of her prison job, she helps women pass their GED tests. In the end, Kerman leaves prison and reenters her busy, successful NYC lifestyle much as she left it. She is welcomed back into the world with open arms — as someone who has survived prison!
The reader is left with a pang, because most of the women Kerman sleeps next to, showers next to, eats with will enter back into a world that is cold, unforgiving, and harsh. These women are uneducated, some with terrible drug habits or mental illnesses. Rightly so, Kerman feels no hesitation in exposing the nearly nonexistent rehabilitation programs offered in prison. With America’s incarceration rates higher than any other country, one has to wonder what it is we are doing wrong. Are we wrong to put these women in, or are we wrong to let them out to flounder and fail? Kerman’s memoir contributes a compassionate voice to this ongoing dialogue, and a less soapy counterpoint to the popular TV series.