Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A Review of 'Orange is the New Black' by Piper Kerman

"With a career, a boyfriend, and a loving family, Piper Kerman barely resembles the reckless young woman who delivered a suitcase of drug money ten years before.

But that past has caught up with her.

Convicted and sentenced to fifteen months at the infamous federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut, the well-heeled Smith College alumna is now inmate #11187-424-- one of the millions of people who disappear 'down the rabbit hole' of the American penal system.

From her first strip search to her final release, Kerman learns to navigate this strange world with its strictly enforced codes of behavior and arbitrary rules.  She meets women from all walks of life, who surprise her with small tokens of generosity, hard words of wisdom, and simple acts of acceptance.

Heartbreaking, hilarious, and at times enraging, Kerman's story offers a rare look into the lives of women in prison-- why it is we lock so many away and what happens to them when they're there."

I have watched every season of "Orange is the New Black" available on Netflix twice over.  I am absolutely fascinated with the goings on in prison, though I never want to find out first hand what it's like.  Vicarious experience is good enough for me.  When I heard that this show was originally a book, I made it my mission to get this book for myself.  That was about a year and a half or two years ago, but I finally got my hands on a copy and I devoured this book.

I was surprised by just how different from the show it is.  I mean, the Netflix show gets quite violent, especially in the later seasons.  It can get downright scary.  In the show, particularly during season 2, if I remember correctly, there is gang violence within the prison and things begin to fall apart around the prison itself.  But there isn't any of that in this book.  Definitely not the gang violence and very minimally about the prison falling apart.  Even Alex from the show plays a minimal part in this book  This book is mainly about the women in prison that Piper meets and how she keeps it together during her year-long stint in prison.  She ruminates a little about the injustices that befall our prison system.

Recently in my Feminist Philosophy class, we've been talking about the Prison Industrial Complex-- that is, unfairly compensated for prison labor... it's basically slave labor, prisoners are paid so little.  But worst of all, there is a racial imbalance-- far more people of color are imprisoned than white people.  You see these inequalities and you get to know the people in the prison rather than simply know the crimes that were committed.  One thing that I liked was that it wasn't accepted to ask what someone was in prison for.  Sure, some people would share that with others, but not before you got to know the person.  You'd learn what their hopes and dreams for the future were and whether or not they were married or otherwise romantically attached to someone and whether or not they had children waiting for them at home.  Then they might tell you that they were in prison for a drug-related crime... and then you'd be faced with feeling of, "That's it?" because you realize that, in fact, the people in prison have worth.  You realize this in a way you can't usually in real life unless you genuinely know someone who happens to be in prison.  We tend to lump all prisoners together and not really think about the crime committed.  We tend to think that all prisoners who are sent to prison belong there and that is that.

I'm not saying that prisons need to be abolished, because I do think there are some people who need to be locked up (although not in solitary because that causes more problems than it solves) such as murderers, rapists, and people who are abusive and sadistic to other people and animals.  But I do think this book puts you in a place to think about why we put people in prison and whether or not our prison system is set up in an ethical way because it forces you to think of prisoners as people, if that makes sense.

One thing I preferred in the show was that the other women in the prison are the front runners of the story and that they get to tell their own stories.  That even further forces you to think of prisoners as people with specific identities.  I suppose this would be hard to do in a book though, especially the way Piper Kerman has set up this story.

I see this book as Piper recognizing the privilege that she holds in prison.  She takes time throughout the book, as opposed to just once, to acknowledge that she has advantages that many of the other prisoners don't.  She has friends and family that visit her every week.  She has a decent amount of money that she can spend within the prison for day-to-day necessities.  She has opportunities that others don't have.  I thought she struck an interesting balance between checking her privilege as a white, educated woman and sharing her experience.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading 'Orange is the New Black' because it was so honest and highlighted a part of our society that people tend to ignore except on a superficial level.

I give 'Orange is the New Black':
Thanks for Reading!


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