Review: ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK by Piper Kerman

Review by Alison Doherty

Orange is the New Black

Piper Kerman

Spiegel & Grau, 2010

I, like most people reading the book now, started Orange is the New Black after watching the Netflix show based on Piper Kerman’s memoir. The show (which is fantastic) is full of hilarious hazing antics, big lesbian drama, and sporadic moments of terrifying violence. By contrast, the book is more subdued, compassionate retelling of Kerman’s 16 months in a federal prison.

Kerman starts the book, going to great lengths to show that’s she’s not who people think of when they think of prisoners. A well-educated, self-described “nice blond lady”, her friends, family, and fiancé are all shocked both to find out Kerman once carried money for a West African drug lord and that because of mandatory minimums she can’t get out of her jail time. Even the prison guards seemed surprised to see her there. The biggest shock of all might be that she engaged in a lesbian relationship, although as a fellow alum from Smith College that shouldn’t really of surprised anyone except maybe her grandparents.

At times, in the book Kerman highlights her otherness. She repeatedly acknowledges how lucky she is compared to the other inmates. She has a relatively short sentence, a constant stream of visitors, and a steady supply of books from her Amazon wish list. She sets herself up in the position of an anthropological observer, insisting on her separateness while attempting to tell the stories of women from all races and backgrounds. These stories always emphasize her fellow inmates’ humanity, and describe the strange customs that accompany prison life: the faux mother-daughter relationships, the contraband cookery, and the many uses for sanitary pads (which unlike almost everything else the prisoners have an unlimited supply of).

At other times in the memoir, Kerman immerses herself in the prison culture. Before entering prison many give her the advice to stay separate from the other prisoners and not to make friends. When she encounters the other prisoners’ concern and kindness, instead of the aggression she expected, Kerman finds it impossible to follow this advice. She enters into a mother-daughter relationship with Pop, queen of the kitchen. She makes microwavable cheesecake. She even manages to find some level of kinship with her former girlfriend, who’s the reason she’s in prison.

What strikes me as the true strength of Kerman’s writing is her ability to remain positive about the people she met, while inserting an admonition of the broken American prison system. She writes about boredom, loss of power, sexually abusive prison guards, the arbitrary rules, and a lack of oversight without sounding like she’s complaining. She shows how random sentencing can be and how prison is not set up to help society or reform prisoners, but instead functions as a seven billion dollar business that is being financed by tax payer dollars.

I found the memoir, illuminating, well written, honest, and quietly funny. However Kerman has received a lot of criticism, both for being overly positive and for her privileged status as a non-typical prisoner. I agree with both statements (the book is positive and Kerman is privileged), however I disagree with these criticisms. I don’t think this book or its author are pretending to be anything they aren’t. I didn’t feel like Kerman portrayed herself as either a victim or a savior. Instead, I thought she wrote this book to educate the public about prison and make something meaningful out of her experience.

Alison Doherty can be found on Twitter @AlisonCDoherty or on her blog:

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