2014 Reading

Reading 2014: Orange Is the New Black

February 7, 2014

OrangeIstheNewBlack After growing up as WASP and graduating from Smith, Piper Kerman was looking for adventure. She found it through a lesbian relationship that landed her laundering money and transporting drugs for the drug cartel that her then girlfriend worked for. Then she wanted out, and eventually was able to get end the relationship and move on. Ten years later, Piper has changed her life around, is engaged, has a solid career, and is awaiting sentencing for her crimes during her “wild years.” When the Feds showed up at her home in NYC, she was shocked, but willing to acknowledge her penalty. She details these life-changing events in her memoir, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison. Kerman is very upfront in confronting the fact that her racial and class privilege allowed her to do her time and transition back into society far more easily than her fellow inmates. She also makes clear that she realizes she made poor choices, and even a decade later, was willing to accept her consequences, her prison sentence, and forgive those who spitefully implicated her in the crime. But she also highlighted that the prison system du jour does very little to actually promote positive societal change, particularly for those trapped within a more marginalized demographic.

In addition to serving her sentence, Kerman also had to wait several years from arrest and indictment to actually begin her prison stay, effectively using up all her twenties. Essentially, such bureaucracy is one of the many confusing parts of the laws surrounding the attempt to come down hard with the “The War on Drugs.” I’d read The New Jim Crow last year, and while Kerman’s memoir deals with a very different story, many of the startling facts of our current prison and judicial system are evident in both.

One of my fears as a child was being taken away from my parents, and now as a parent, I have random fears that I’ll be arrested for some unintentional crime or for breaking a law I’d never heard of. (I think I was fed too many conspiracy theories in a past life.) While Piper herself was not a mother at the time of her imprisonment, some of her fellow inmates were. My heart aches particularly for the many families separated at a crucial stage of life, some for felonies with seemingly ridiculous sentences.

The book is currently being made into a Netflix TV series, and one season has already aired with the second being prepared to air Spring 2014. However, the show is, well…a bit (lot!) more graphic in just about every area, and takes many liberties to make the storyline far more dramatic. (This Buzzfeed article shares 6 big ways the book and show are different.) If you’ve watched the show and decided it wasn’t a go, I recommend the book instead. The book, while it has some elements some may disagree with, is far more tastefully written.

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