Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Orange is the New Black: A Review

You're Down for 15 Years for WHAT?!


In case you missed it, Orange is the New Black—the television show, was all the rage this summer. An original series on Netflix, it is based on Piper Kerman's memoir of the same name. Kerman is a nice, middle-class, Smith College-educated white girl who finds herself facing 15 months in federal prison on drug-related charges. While serving her time in Danbury (the prison Martha Stewart DIDN'T go to), Kerman gets to know many decent, hard-working women who are serving five, ten, fifteen years on non-violent, usually drug-related, offenses. The War on Drugs and Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Laws don't allow judges to use discretion for minor drug offenses, leading to shockingly long sentences as Kerman comes to learn during her multi-year ordeal as she faces her own drug charges. Kerman's desire to effect change led to her publishing Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison, not just to tell her story, but to tell the stories of countless others she met during her relatively brief stay in the United States' federal correctional system.

Most of the women in the Camp were poor, poorly educated, and came from neighborhoods where the mainstream economy was barely present and the narcotics trade provided the most opportunities for employment. Their typical offenses were for things like low-level dealing, allowing their apartments to be used for drug activity, serving as couriers, and passing messages, all for low wages. Small involvement in the drug trade could land you in prison for many years, especially if you had a lousy court appointed lawyer. Even if you had a great Legal Aid lawyer, he or she was guaranteed to have a staggering caseload and limited resources for your defense. It was hard for me to believe that the nature of our crimes was what accounted for my fifteen-month sentence versus some of my neighbors' much lengthier ones. I had a fantastic private attorney and a country-club suit to go with my blond bob.

Keep reading for my review of Piper Kerman's memoir, Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison. Warning, minor spoilers ahead for both the book (very few) and the television show (a bit more).




My journey to Kerman's memoir began with the television show. I had some extra time on my hands (yay winter colds), and watched the first season over a few days. I absolutely loved it! I wasn't planning on reading the book. I gotta say, by the end of the show I didn't think Piper Chapman (the television character based on Piper Kerman) was all that sympathetic and I wasn't interested in hearing from the real Piper. However, a few events in Chapman's world made me think perhaps the show veered waaaay off-base from the book, and my curiosity got the better of me.

Piper Chapman


The "real" Piper Kerman


Beecher? Chapman?
For example, early on Chapman is told of Danbury that “This ain't no Oz.” As a diehard fan of Oz, I was relieved. Part of the reason I didn't watch Orange is the New Black when it first came out was because I thought either it was Oz with women or it was a lesbians-in-prison show, which has also already been done. But. Um. Yeah. This show kinda became Oz by the end. Piper Chapman is more Tobias Beecher than Piper Kerman. Sure, Oz was more violent and rape-y, but Orange is the New Black got more sensationalized as it went along (delightfully so). The sensationalism was my first tipoff that big chunks of the show were more “loosely” based on the book than others. The second tipoff? That hella cliffhanger! That's really what made me pick up the book. Because, really, unless Kerman wrote that book from prison, I'm preeetty sure that last scene didn't actually happen. (Also, if it did happen, I needed to know NOW how it turned out. Bam! Book downloaded.)

I intended to skim the book to find out what really happened between Piper and Pennsatucky (that cliffhanger from hell). But the book was good. I read half the first night I downloaded it and the second half the next day. And... the book was nothing like the television show. Well, okay, maybe the first couple of episodes took events straight from the book. But as television and movies tend to do with memoirs, the show condensed events, combined characters into new creations, and generally changed things up to be more dramatic.

The book tells Kerman's story (she did a bit more than innocently carry a suitcase of cash), but it also tells the stories of her fellow inmates. There's Yoga Janet, who was “down” on a marijuana charge, it's true. But I'm fairly certain she didn't have any tragic run-ins with human deer-children. And there's Pop, the head chef. I read anxiously as Kerman described her “misstep” in the dining hall with Pop (who is, indeed, a Russian gangster's wife):

I, knowing less than nothing, began maligning the food. It didn't occur to me at that point that anyone would put any pride into their prison job, but Pop did. When I made a joke about a hunger strike, that was it. Pop fixed me with a ferocious glare and a pointed finger. “Listen, honey, I know you just got here, so I know that you don't understand what's what. I'm gonna tell you this once. There's something here called 'inciting a riot,' and that kind of shit you're talking about, hunger strikes, that kind of shit, that's inciting a riot. You can get in big trouble for that, they will lock your ass up in the SHU in a heartbeat. Now, me, I don't care, but you don't know these people, honey. The wrong one hears you saying that shit, she goes and tells the CO, you're going to be shocked how quickly the lieutenant is coming to lock your ass up. So take a tip from me, and watch what you say.” And with that, she left. Nina looked at me, silently telegraphing, You asshole. From then on I stayed out of Pop's path, ducking my head to avoid her eyes on the chow line.

What? That's it? You mean she insulted Pop to her face, and she gets advice on avoiding the SHU? Huh.

Truthfully, Kerman does a fine job of seeing the positive in everyone. The show, however, must build drama. And in order to have drama, one must have conflict. But the real conflict in the book comes not from individual interactions, but from Kerman's adjustment to prison, and from the injustices inefficiencies absurdities of our justice system. For those who have seen the show, you know that inmate obsessed with her wedding? She really is getting married. Crazy Eyes? She's a little weird, and definitely wants to hook up with Kerman. But she knows how to take a hint. Pop does Kerman a solid rather than try to starve her out. One of the “Eminemlettes” is a very sweet girl who makes sparkly name tags for everyone's bunks with “flowers, fairy princesses, and fancy lettering.” Pennsatucky, in the show, is created by taking a dash of book Pennsatucky, adding a pinch of book holy-roller girl, and baking until they get a completely fictionalized character. Kerman describes the real Pennsatucky as “perceptive and sensitive but [she] ha[s] great difficulty expressing herself in a way that was not off-putting to others, and she got loud and angry when she felt disrespected, which was often.” And, by the way, Pennsatucky DID get new teeth in prison.

No, not these shower shoes
For the most part, these are nice women who try to look out for each other, who try to help the time pass as painlessly as possible. Don't get me wrong, put a bunch of street-wise women in a confined space, you're going to have predictably tense moments. But it seems that overall Kerman experienced a sense of them all being in it together, a sense of “us vs. them” that united the women at Danbury. For example, if you've seen the show, you know how Chapman had to improvise her shower shoes until her commissary money came through. In the book, Kerman still had to wait on her commissary money, but her experience was quite different:

When a new person arrived, their tribe—white, black, Latino, or the few and far between “others"—would immediately make note of their situation, get them settled, and steer them through their arrival.

The other white women brought me a bar of soap, a real toothbrush and toothpaste, shampoo, some stamps and writing materials, some instant coffee, Cremora, a plastic mug, and perhaps most important, shower shoes to avoid terrible foot fungi. It turned out these were all items that one had to purchase at the prison commissary. You didn't have the money to buy toothpaste or soap? Tough. Better hope that another prisoner would give it to you.

Every time a random woman with a few missing teeth gave me a bar of deodorant soap I swung wildly from elation to despair at the loss of my life as I knew it. Had I ever been so completely at the mercy of the kindness of strangers? And yet they were kind.

Kerman herself describes the atmosphere at Danbury:

Single-sex living has certain constants, whether it's upscale or down and dirty. At Smith College the pervasive obsession with food was expressed at candlelight dinners and at Friday-afternoon faculty teas; in Danbury it was via microwave cooking and stolen food. In many ways I was more prepared to live in close quarters with a bunch of women than some of my fellow prisoners, who were driven crazy by communal female living. There was less bulimia and more fights than I had known as an undergrad, but the same feminine ethos was present—empathetic camaraderie and bawdy humor on good days, and histrionic dramas coupled with meddling, malicious gossip on bad days.

Good to know college dorm living also prepares you to survive prison. Mind you, Danbury is a low-security prison (one step below minimum-security), and Kerman's experience isn't like this everywhere. She spends some time in at least two other correctional facilities; if Danbury is a survivable street-gang summer camp, then these other two facilities are exactly what you think a federal prison would be like.

Remember Larry, the fiancé? In the show, the relationship between Chapman and Larry is chock full of angst and drama. They love each other, but her prison time is taking a very large toll on their relationship. And, man! That article he writes for The New York Times. That certainly doesn't make Chapman any friends.

I wanted to know more about that New York Times article. Was it real? Did her fiancé really betray her in that way? Yes, and no. In the show, Larry uses Chapman's experience in prison for fame and fortune, but in so doing he has to emphasize and embellish the more sensational aspects of her story, of her fellow inmates' stories. Chapman's inmates get wind of the article and feel hurt and betrayed by the things she has said about them. Yet, Netflix does the same with Kerman's book. Of course, if you've ever seen a memoir translated to the screen, you know some “adjustments” in the story usually happen. But hell, Netflix takes creative license to a new level and spins fantastical new tales. I don't know if Larry's Times article in the show is one big piece of irony, or if it's a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement by Netflix of the liberties it has taken with Kerman's story. However, I can't help but wonder if some of Kerman's former inmates haven't read her book but watched the show and thought it was Kerman's actual portrayal of them?

And that actual, real-life article Larry wrote for The New York Times? He wrote about his marriage proposal to Kerman.
Piper Kerman & Larry Smith, just after her release

Overall, Kerman's memoir details her experiences at Danbury, from day-to-day life (hunting for the few spinach leaves in the iceberg lettuce in the salad bar, post-visitation strip searches) to the notable challenges of prison life (mold and maggots in the bathroom, misogynistic staff in positions of power), and it tells the stories of her fellow inmates. Kerman wants us to truly understand that a mistake (big or small, “victimless” or not) disrupts families and costs our nation billions of dollars, that our current attempts at rehabilitation are a joke and most women leave prison without the resources and skills they need to succeed and to keep from returning to prison. Kerman pulls us in by playing to our voyeurism (what is prison really like?) and once she has us, she delivers her real message: The system, this War on Drugs, is broken. It's really really broken.

Kerman's writing style is engaging and although she clearly has a message, she is not at all preachy about it. I enjoyed her honesty in describing her experiences (although the Federal Bureau of Prisons perhaps did not), and found that she writes with a level of realism that doesn't devolve into pessimism, which kept this from being a “heavy” book. I've read books before that take the perspective of the middle-class “outsider” looking into a world that is “other,” whether that is cultural, socioeconomic, or in this case, an inside look at the justice system. So many of those books are written with an air of condescension that make my skin crawl. But not Kerman's book. Kerman talks of her fellow inmates with compassion and with a sense of pride that comes not from a paternalistic place (oh, look how good these women have done in spite of their circumstances aren't they just great), but with a sense of pride born of genuine understanding of their inner strength.

My rating:

Did you catch the Orange is the New Black craze this summer? Did it inspire you to pick up the book? What do you think of Piper Kerman's story? Or do you have other “true tales of prison” memoirs to recommend?



1 comment:

  1. I for one will try to be more open and less judgey about women who've been in prison as a result of this book. I hadn't even realized I was, but there's the truth.

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