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Monday, March 9, 2015

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison

This week is Sassy Peach Goes to Prison. I am spending the week examining books that focus on our incarceration system and the effects it has on the well-being and long-term of those coming in and out of the system.

Yes, yes, yes, we are all watching the phenomenal series on Netflix. But I wanted to see what the book was all about, so I picked up Piper Kerman's first hand account of her time in prison, Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison.

Piper is about as WASP-y as they come. She is a happy, productive New Yorker with a lovely boyfriend and a great job. Life is peachy until she gets word that she is about to be indicted for drug running more than a decade prior. She was young, in love, and living a jet-setting life courtesy of her girlfriend's drug kingpin boss. Prison is something she never imagined. She must now navigate her fifteen months in the federal pen, from strip searches to short family visits, from arbitrary rules to learning new skills, from friendships to enemies, Piper slowly discovers a way of life she has never confronted before, and her insight into what makes a women's prison tick is engrossing and important.

Because the show is so good. Because the third season is about to start up this next summer. Because a white middle-class women in prison for a crime she committed as a reckless youth involving drugs in a lesbian relationship sounds absolutely fascinating. Because, ultimately, this is a first-hand account of what it means to be in a minimum-security prison in America.

I picked up this book, honestly, assuming that it would be super fluffy. It would be all about lessons learned, and how difficult it was to be a privilege woman in prison. I found this deep memoir to be so much more than all of that. It was incredibly introspective. And while it could easily be argued it's a bit on the fluffy side, I think that there are some major takeaways from Kerman's story. Most of the women she encounters have had incredibly rough lives. There are women who have never been given a chance, and often times being in jail is just part of living their lives. Abusive spouses, children born in prison, children on the outside being raised by grandparents or other family members – this is just daily life for so many of America's unseen.

If you haven't yet read this book, I urge you to pick it up. Go into it with an open mind, and a willingness to ingest Pipers story from the perspective of viewing our American penal system with an objective mind. Now, it's difficult to view our penal system objectively because even at a minimum security level, you see how Piper easily fell through the cracks. Her time in a super prison facility while waiting to testify against the drug lord is astounding, shocking, and frankly quite angering. If you've seen the second season of the series, it is portrayed a bit there, but reading it on the page and seeing Piper discuss the inhumanity of her daily life should be enough to make you want to punch the page and then go out to do something to make a better place.

As I walk away, I leave you with Piper's own thoughts on the heartbreaking notion of what our current prison system encompasses. I couldn't have said it better myself. 


"Prison is quite literally a ghetto in the most classic sense of the world, a place where the U.S. government now puts not only the dangerous but also the inconvenient--people who are mentally ill, people who are addicts, people who are poor and uneducated and unskilled. Meanwhile the ghetto in the outside world is a prison as well, and a much more difficult one to escape from than this correctional compound. In fact, there is basically a revolving door between our urban and rural ghettos and the formal ghetto of our prison system." (Piper Kerman, pp. 200-201)

For purchase below. 

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