Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Book Review: Orange is the New Black

Piper Kerman is an alumna of two somewhat exclusive, single-sex institutions, and received an education at each. The first is Smith College. The second is the federal correctional facilty in Danbury, Connecticut, and this experience is the subject of her memoir, Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison, now available in our Leisure Reading section.

The first and obvious question, one asked of Kerman many times both during and after her incarceration: how did the “All-American Girl” (blonde, blue-eyed, privileged and educated) end up behind razor wire and heavy locked doors? As Kerman herself says in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, she “went looking for trouble and found it.” After graduation from Smith with a theatre degree, Kerwin stayed in Northampton, Massachusetts, waiting tables and generally leading a bohemian existence. She meets and becomes romantically involved with Nora, a sophisticated older woman with a secret: she is in the employ of a West African drug kingpin. The younger woman is seduced by Nora’s glamorous lifestyle and easy money, and agrees once—just once—to help out by smuggling a suitcase full of drug money from Chicago to Brussels. After that mission, Kerman begins to feel that she’s gotten in over her head, breaks off the relationship, and starts a new life on the West Coast. With a new job and a new boyfriend, she believes she’s put the whole episode behind her for good—until there’s a knock at the door. Two U.S. Customs agents informed her she’d been indicted on charges of drug smuggling and money laundering.

As part of a plea bargain, Kerman pled guilty to money laundering and was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison. Her lawyer gave her this advice: “Don’t make any friends.” It was advice Kerman found difficult to follow. She was surprised by the unexpected kindness of her fellow inmates, who took her under their wing and showed her how to navigate the official and many unofficial rules of her incarceration. For example, one could ask how long someone’s sentence was, but one should never ask about the offense that led to someone’s arrest. Women of varying ages and races shared both personal goods (toothpaste, extra shower shoes) and advice (smuggle food out of the cafeteria in the front of one’s pants for clandestine cooking later). Danbury was no Club Fed—Kerman details the humiliating strip searches and the behavior of guards who were sometimes cruel and frequently incompetent. She admits that she had an easier time of it than most of her fellow prisoners; racism both subtle and overt abounded in the prison, and a blue-eyed blonde had certain advantages. Also, she had a loving fiancĂ©, a supportive family and a network of friends on the outside that visited regularly and sent her letters and books; many women had no such support system beyond the prison walls. Inside the prison, though, they formed a surrogate family and looked out for one another.

The book is, to be sure, a commentary on America’s war on drugs; Kerman is critical of mandatory minimum sentences for even minor, nonviolent offenses. She heartbreakingly tells of crying toddlers ripped from their mothers’ arms after visiting hours. Still, she doesn’t shy away from her own guilt. She admits her culpability and describes her shame when she met drug addicts in prison and realized she shared some responsibility for their plight. Kerman also raises concerns about the “corrections” system, which institutionalizes inmates and doesn’t prepare them for the realities of life after prison, so that recidivism is rampant.

The real heart of the book, though, is the resilience and compassion of the women she met at Danbury. Her “bunkies” Annette and Natalie, her prison mentor “Pop” and the others are characters as fascinating as any you could find in fiction, and one wishes to know what happened to them after their release. Kerman writes with wit, humor and sensitivity about a place and situation few of us will ever experience (and none of us wants to). The book reads like a novel, and can arouse laughter, anger and tears. It is a love letter both to her now-husband Larry, whose patient devotion is evident throughout, and to the women who became her prison “family.”

If anything, I felt Kerman gave short shrift to the story of her life before her arrest. Maybe she is still somewhat in the "don't ask/don't tell" prisoner's mindset, but I wanted to know more about how she became involved in criminal activity. I thought she rushed over that to get to the main topic of her incarceration. Perhaps a prequel is in the offing? Still, I really enjoyed this memoir, and hope to see more from Ms. Kerman in the future.

Orange is the New Black is available in our Leisure Reading section on the second floor of the library. You can visit the author’s website at piperkerman.com.

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