Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison
| Piper Kerman
Educated, white, middle-class with a steady career and relationship, Piper Kerman is not your average female inmate. Her memoir Orange is the New Black outlines Kerman’s prison sentence for her reckless involvement as a drug mule for her ex-girlfriend. It is the basis for the fantastic Netflix show of the same name so when I spotted the book at my local library I had to check it out. I’ve tried to keep this as spoiler-free as possible but read with caution!
The book starts a little bit slow with a a summary of Piper’s life. She paints herself as a WASP, with hippy parents and ‘a thirst for bohemian counterculture and no clear path’. She falls into a relationship with an older woman, Nora, and eventually becomes a drug mule. Unlike in the TV show, Nora is not a big part of the story (so no prison sex for Piper if that’s what you were here for) and Piper has to wait 6 years before she goes to prison so she can testify against the West African drug kingpin who is waiting to be extradited from London.
There were two main issues I had with this book:
- Piper isn’t the most compelling narrator.
- Piper’s time in prison is a little bit cushy.
Though Piper’s 12 months in prison are filled with loneliness, boredom and a sense of dehumanisation, her life is easier than her peers. She gets along with most prisoners and everyone is nice. People give Piper presents when she joins the prison until her money comes in and she can buy things herself. She has money to buy things. She’s taken under the wing by an older Italian-American lady and makes it into the inner circle of the resident chef, Pop. She makes friends from people in her bunk, at her prison-work and across different prison cliques.
The memoir features stories about different prisoners.
Pop says she’s seen much worse. ‘Down on the compound I had a friend, very pretty girl, she was with an officer. So one night he’s on duty, he comes to get her, he takes her in the staff bathroom, he’s doing her. Something happens, he’s gotta rush out, he locks her in the bathroom. She’s in there, and another officer walks in, so she starts to scream.’
They kept her in the SHU for months during the internal investigation. They shot her full of psych drugs – she blew up like a balloon. When they finally let her out, she was a zombie. It took a long time for her to get back to herself.’
Although the most compelling part of the book, the narrative voice fails here too. There are so many prisoners that Piper knows and whose stories she shares but it’s hard to keep up with who’s who.
There are facts woven into the narrative; 80% of prisoners are mothers, 2/3 of all prisoners return to prison. But it all feels a little shallow as Piper’s time in prison is not representative of most female prisoners in America. It’s repeated throughout the book; what is a white, middle-class woman in her mid-30s doing in prison? She can’t really hide her privilege either and I understand why so many reviewers disliked her. She has a job waiting for her when she gets out (‘a generous friend had created a position for me at the company he ran’), she has tons of visitors (her parents, her brother, her fiance, her friends…) and she gets lots of post and books which other prisoners do not.
At the end of the day I don’t think there’s as much value in her story as there would be for someone who had come from a more disadvantaged background, who wasn’t given preferential treatment for being white, for whom the system was working against. The TV show on is everything that this book is not. And I don’t mean just the drama. I mean the relationships, the emotion and most importantly the stories behind these women. The show highlights how unfair the system is, how being stuck in the poverty cycle forces you to commit crimes and how circumstance is everything. This is the story about a woman who gets caught due to legal small print and whose time served has no real purpose.
Based on the book (a.k.a some things I recognise from the show):
- Pop/Red, wife of Russian gangster, works in kitchen
- Yoga Janet/Yoga Jones
- Martha Stewart trial mentioned which inspired the Judy King character
- ‘You got them TV titties’
- The missing screwdriver event
- Taystee is very loosely based on a character called Delicious
- Crazy Eyes calling Piper her wife is based on a real episode, as is the whole peeing scene in the first episode