Piper Kerman, a Smith College graduate, was living a happy, successful life as a freelance producer in New York City with her magazine-editor boyfriend when her past abruptly caught up with her. Two policemen showed up on her doorstep and arrested her for a crime she committed years earlier. Neither her boyfriend nor her family knew anything of her past – a short-lived dabbling in the world of drug trafficking (namely transporting suitcases full of money on international flights) – something she got involved in because her jet-setter lover at the time asked her to help out. Although shocked, her family was supportive and assured her that a blond, blue-eyed, upstanding citizen would not be sent to jail. She ended up spending eleven months in the women’s prison in Danbury Connecticut, and the book is a memoir about her experience with the criminal justice system and the women who cycle through it.
Throughout the memoir, Piper Kerman makes the best out of her situation pointing out, but not dwelling on the tedious and arbitrary aspects of prison life: humiliating strip searches every time she has a visitor, the random inspections, late night noise of some unruly inmates. She focuses on the positive: the warmth and kindness shown to her by the other women; the support from the outside including mail; visits and enough books sent to her by friends and family to create a lending library; opportunities to work to pass the time and learn something new; a track to run laps and yoga classes; tutoring other inmates in their pursuit of a GED. She lives by the adage that if you show respect to others they will respect you. One gets the sense that she was a force for unity by treating others with kindness and dignity.
There are humorous stories of resourcefulness, such as Piper learning and mastering a cheesecake recipe made in the microwave using ingredients available using a whole container of coffee creamer and a bottle of lemon juice. And being a stylish New York girl, she was pleased to find there was an underground economy where one could get a pedicure.
Surprisingly there was less violence and cruelty than expected. Strong friendships and mother-daughter surrogate relationships are formed. As expected, there are power hierarchies and unstated rules of the road that all new inmates must navigate.
The memoir proves enlightening, and you can empathize with the author’s frustration with the legal system. The mandatory sentencing rules wrought by the War on Drugs that accounts for the prison system being over-crowded by non-violent small drug crimes at a cost $30,000 per person per year to tax payers.
Unfortunately, you become aware that this is a story of a privileged white girl who committed a crime (not out of economic necessity, but because it was thrilling) and spends almost a year in prison, all the while knowing she will return to her privileged life – it is easy for her to assume the role of an outsider. The majority of the women in the story are not so lucky – they do their time in prison with little awaiting them on the outside.
The memoir “Orange is the New Black” was the basis for the new series of the same name on Netflix.