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Orange is the New Black

August 3, 2014

Eleanor and I watched the first episode of Orange is the New Black recently. Not having read much about it, I wasn’t sure, at first, whether the main character, Piper, was going to prison to do some kind of embedded reporter stunt or whether she was actually guilty of something—the episode didn’t show that until after the first half hour, so all I got was the fish-out-of-water feeling that a white middle-class-woman, obviously supposed to be just like me, was going to a scary place.

In a stunning example of good timing, then, my friend Miriam sent me a copy of the Piper Kerman memoir Orange is the New Black, about her year in a women’s prison for a non-violent drug offense. As I started to read it, I was impressed at the way the first episode of the show had been faithful to the details of the book. After I finished reading the book, Eleanor and I watched the second episode of the show. It used a lot of detail from the memoir, making me think that the rest of the show will use the fish-out-of-water perspective in order to focus on the other women, using the memoir as a starting place. The show tries to be funny, but the situation strikes me as terribly sad.

The memoir is detailed and sounds honest, and I read it quickly, in a couple of sittings. Piper’s friends sent her books, magazines, and letters while she was in prison, and one of them sent a clipping of a fashion column from the New York Times in which women were wearing orange with a note saying “NYers wear orange in solidarity w/ Piper’s plight!” This apparently gave her the title.

During her first two months in prison, Piper says she “tore through every book I received…and watched with envy as people went off to their prison jobs.” She describes most of the jobs, including Puppies Behind Bars, Unicor, and Construction and Maintenance Services, where she herself worked.

Although she develops friendships with other prisoners, Piper’s tone is occasionally enlivened by a different perspective, as in her description of behavior the week before Easter Sunday:
“I found the religious prostrations of my saber-rattling born-again neighbors tedious. Some of the faithful had a distinct aspect of roostering, loudly proclaiming that they were going to pray on any number of topics, how God was walking beside them through their incarceration, how Jesus loved sinners, and so on. Personally, I thought that one could thank the Lord at a lower volume and perhaps with less self-congratulation. You could worship loudly and still act pretty lousy, abundant evidence of which was running around the Dorms.”
The tone does not get holier-than-though, however. The longer she spends in prison, the sorrier she feels about her drug-related crime (carrying a suitcase of money through an airport), because she sees the evidence of how drugs have ruined many of these womens’ lives. She says “when I saw in the visiting room how addiction had torn apart the bonds between mothers and their children, I finally understood the true consequences of my own actions. I had helped these terrible things happen.”

What Piper gets across most effectively is the emotional effect of living as a prisoner, when whatever you are told to do, no matter how illogical or cruel, must be done immediately. She tells the story of why she didn’t volunteer for the education program, and readers can see why it wouldn’t have been a good idea at all (there is a list of resources in the back of the book for readers, including those who want to help provide books for prisoners).

Piper claims that the “vast majority of women” in prison are nonviolent drug offenders: ”in the federal system alone…there were over 90,000 prisoners lucked up for drug offenses, compared with about 40,000 for violent crimes.” While she doesn’t advocate for a simple answer like legalization of drugs, she does paint a picture of a legal system broken by mandatory drug sentencing. She also points out how ill-suited most of the women are to being released: “there was no continuity at all between the prison economy, including prison jobs, and the mainstream economy.”

Her conclusion is that “our jailers are generally granted near-total anonymity, like the cartoon executioner who wears a hood to conceal his identity. What is the point, what is the reason, to lock people away for years, when it seems to mean so very little, even to the jailers who hold the key? How can a prisoner understand their punishment to have been worthwhile to anyone, when it’s dealt in a way so offhand and indifferent?”

I think it’s a book worth reading, especially for someone like me who is not aware of ever knowing a person who was locked up. I hear that some people who do know folks in prison have criticized the TV show for being unrealistic. I’d be interested to hear what anyone who has ever set foot in a prison thinks of the book.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. bostonbibliophile1 permalink
    August 3, 2014 6:51 pm

    I enjoyed the book and the TV show too, but they are apples and oranges. Things are dramatized differently for the show and the show is more of a comedy- which is fine. it doesn’t have to be a documentary. I felt like Kerman avoided talking about some of the more unpleasant aspects of incarceration. Which again is fine. And I was disappointed that it ended so abruptly. But overall I really enjoyed the book and thought it was well-written and worth reading.

    • August 4, 2014 1:40 pm

      I agree that it’s well-written and worth reading, for people like us.
      My friend Joy, who volunteers at a women’s prison, said this on FB: “I’m not at the point of seeing anything comic in the show anymore. I know too many women in real life who are like those women. If you want to read what mass incarceration is doing to generations of people of color in this country, read the book The New Jim Crow. Mass incarceration is our generation’s version of slavery.”

  2. August 4, 2014 1:33 am

    interesting – the TV show i getting so much hype, but I had no idea it was based on a book. Do you think it matters which you experience first? Usually I like to read books before I see the adaptation, but it sounds as if the TV version isn’t exactly an adaptation?

    • August 4, 2014 1:46 pm

      Especially in light of Joy’s comment (in my reply to Marie, above), I think it’s much better, in this case, to read the book first. You may decide not to watch the show.

  3. August 4, 2014 4:45 pm

    Did you change your blog header recently? It looks different and I love it! But maybe you changed it a while ago and I was just oblivious.

    I’ve definitely heard criticisms of the show, and I think a lot of them are probably really fair. On the other hand, it means a lot to me that these stories are being told, and I’d rather the show exist than not exist. I think it’s the sort of imperfect vessel that makes it possible for more diverse stories to get told in the future. (Or maybe that is blind optimism by me, I dunno.)

    • August 4, 2014 8:22 pm

      I got the new header as a birthday present from my friend Glynis! Isn’t it great?
      I like your optimism.

  4. August 8, 2014 8:32 am

    I’ve read the book and watched both seasons of the show. You’re exactly right in your guess that the perspective is used in order to focus on the other women. Piper is obviously a big part of the show, but what I love about it is the other women that we get to know. Each one has a story and I feel like the flashbacks allow you to understand them better. There is humor, but they don’t shy away from showing some major problems with the system.

    • August 11, 2014 2:04 pm

      Aha! Thanks for confirming my guess. The flashback technique was already starting, in the first two episodes, with the story of the Russian cook (played by Kathleen Turner? What? She is forever the glamorous star of Romancing the Stone, in my imagination)

  5. August 9, 2014 5:55 pm

    I got this one on Kindle daily deal, but I haven’t read it yet. I actually really like what you said about Piper coming to terms with what she did and how she felt about it. That hasn’t really happened in the show yet, and I really hope it does.

    • August 11, 2014 2:07 pm

      It sounds like the show may have already gone past where that’s possible. I’ve been thinking about criticisms of the show, and decided that for many of my friends and acquaintances, thinking about these issues is better than never being confronted with the effects of our current drug laws. If the TV show is bringing that further towards the front of public consciousness, that’s a good thing.

  6. August 10, 2014 11:09 am

    I have not read the book, and probably won’t, but I appreciate your review here. I’ve never been to prison, but I do now people who have and some who have worked in prisons. All of them have been in male prisons so I can’t comment on how real the television show is.

    I can say that it doesn’t feel real to me. I watched a season and a half and then gave up. The second season started to feel like Hogan’s Heros, all prisoners out-smarting the guards who are a hapless bunch of incompletants. It just got to be frankly stupid in my opinion. I gave up once they started smuggling contraband into the prison through a tunnel.

    • August 11, 2014 2:08 pm

      I’ve read a comparison of the show to Hogan’s Heroes. That does seem like it’s going a bit too far.

  7. August 11, 2014 8:51 am

    I got this book for Christmas but had not yet read it (despite my passionate love of memoirs). But you provided the impetus (I usually need a few nicely-chosen quotes to push me off my mark). Thanks! I actually liked it a lot…not sure if I could watch the show; I have a much harder time coping with live representations of people in danger and misery that I do with the flat-page version.

    • August 11, 2014 2:10 pm

      I also have a harder time coping with live representations of people in danger and misery than I do with reading about them. I thought it was because I’ve led a sheltered life and couldn’t picture some of the things I read about. Somehow I doubt that your life has been as sheltered as mine, though, so maybe that’s not it.

  8. magpiemusing permalink
    August 21, 2014 10:12 pm

    I haven’t actually read the book (except for the free sample kindle chapter). But I loved the TV show. Not having been incarcerated, I can’t speak to veracity, but it’s really good TV. Not comedy, not straight drama, but mostly richly drawn female characters.

    • August 25, 2014 9:27 pm

      The more people I talk to about the show, the more it seems that they either love it or hate it. Interesting.

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