Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison

I started watching the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black after it was brought up during the weekly book club I have been attending at a maximum security prison. I thought it would help me learn a little more about what prison life is like, and I think it definitely has. The show is based off of an autobiographical book written Piper Kerman, who served a 13 month sentence in federal minimum security prison for drug related crime. After enjoying the show, I decided to check out the book and see what Piper’s actual experience behind bars was like, sans Netflix.

The book Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman is a fast read and a page turner and you feel like you are right there with her. However, it is also similar to an anthropologist’s ethnography in its details, and it’s character studies of the women living inside the prison walls. Throughout the book, she highlights the power differentials in going from a citizen, to an inmate.

“…In relation to people who are anointed with power in the outside world- cops, elected officials, soldiers- we have rights within our interactions. We have a right to speak to power, though we may not exercise it. But when you step behind the walls of a prison as an inmate, you lose that right. It evaporates, and it’s terrifying,” Piper writes.

Piper also describes sexual harassment of male guards toward the female prisoners, and lack of accountability for these actions. Through it all she describes how even though the women are not given basic rights sometimes, they help each other make hell a place where you can still smile every once in awhile. In her reflections, she realizes that she needed the support of the women around her to help her get through her time in prison. Though she had never felt she needed to depend on anyone before, she was humbled to realize in prison that caring about others is really all life is about.

“Do you have to find the evil in yourself in order to truly recognize it in the world? The vilest thing I had located, within myself and within the system that held me prisoner, was an indifference to the suffering of others. And when I understood how rotten I had been, what would I do with myself, now that I was revealed as wretched, not just in private but in public, in a court of law?”

Piper’s time in prison transforms her into much more of a social justice advocate than she had been entering the system. She speaks about how the War on Drugs locked up many of her prison friends, and the difference in prison time based on if you have money to represent yourself in court.

Piper also addresses the complete lack of adequate re-entry education and training for women being released back out into the world again. When women are released from prison, a lot of the time they return to lives and neighborhoods much more violent and dangerous than their time spent in prison.

Kerman wraps up her 13 months in prison and reflects on the America prison system as a whole at the end of the book,

“It sometimes seems like we have built revolving doors between our poorest communities and correctional facilities, and created perverse financial incentives to keep those prisons full, at taxpayers’ expense. America has invested heavily in prisons, while public institutions that actually prevent crime and strengthen communities- schools, hospitals, libraries, museums, community centers- go without.”

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midwestern librarian, writer, activist

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