Sunday, September 26, 2010

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

One of my good friends and I have very similar tastes. We have a lot of the same clothes, our shopping excursions usually leave us with duplicates of the same purses and sweaters, we like the same movies and TV shows, and we even order the same drink at Starbucks, including all the variations: no water, extra hot, seven pumps etc. So when she told me about this book she was interested in reading, Orange is the New Black, I didn't think twice about choosing it to read this week. This is Piper Kerman's candid and reflective memoir of the year she spent in Prison. Devoid of self-pity, and with novelistic flair, this book was a compelling, often hilarious, and unfailingly compassionate portrait of life inside a women’s prison. It offers a unique perspective on the criminal justice system, the reasons we send so many people to prison, and what happens to them when they’re there.

When Piper Kerman was sent to prison for a ten-year-old crime, she barely resembled the reckless young woman she’d been when, shortly after graduating Smith College, she’d committed the misdeeds that would eventually catch up with her. Happily ensconced in a New York City apartment, with a promising career and an attentive boyfriend, she was suddenly forced to reckon with the consequences of her very brief, very careless dalliance in the world of drug trafficking.

Kerman spent thirteen months in prison, eleven of them at the infamous federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut, where she met a surprising and varied community of women living under exceptional circumstances. In Orange Is the New Black, Kerman tells the story of those long months locked up in a place with its own codes of behavior and arbitrary hierarchies, where a practical joke is as common as an unprovoked fight, and where the uneasy relationship between prisoner and jailer is constantly and unpredictably re-calibrated.

Orange is the New Black is a fascinating look down the rabbit hole that is prison. Kerman finds herself submerged in the unique and sometimes overwhelming culture of prison, where kindness can come in the form of sharing toiletries, and an insult in the cafeteria can lead to an enduring enmity. Kerman quickly learns the rules—asking about the length of one’s prison stay is expected, but never ask about the crime that led to it—and carves a niche for herself even as she witnesses the way the prison system fails those who are condemned to it, many of them nonviolent drug offenders. It's a truly absorbing and meditative look at life behind bars.

Kerman neither sentimentalizes nor lectures, but she does discus the restorative justice system, while reflecting on her direct experiences. "But our current criminal justice system has no provision for restorative justice, in which an offender confronts the damage they have done and tries to make it right to the people they have harmed". Many who itch to return to the streets go right back to the drugs that got them locked up. The Bureau of Prisons lacks the basic ability, funding and time to rehabilitate the incarcerated and thus the recidivism to commit the same crimes once released remains real. Some women turn to bad behavior as a coping mechanism against their poverty, lack of family support, abusive spouse and boyfriends and general hopelessness. Kerman also talks candidly about her shock that very little is done for the women who've completed sentences and have no resources for release: reuniting with children and family members, finding housing, and finding employment.

With its expert reporting and humane, clear-eyed storytelling, Orange is the New Black is an authentic, provocative and marvellous book. It transcends the memoir genre's usual self-centeredness, to explore how human beings can always surprise you. You'd expect bad behavior in prison, but I can't stop thinking about the generous and lovely women with whom Piper Kerman served her time. I never expected to pick up a memoir about prison and find myself immersed in a story of grace, of friendship, of loyalty and love.

I loved this book, to a depth and degree that caught me by surprise. Of course it’s a compelling insider’s account of life in a women’s federal prison, and of course it’s a behind-the-scenes look at America’s war on drugs, and of course it’s a story rich with humor, pathos and redemption: all of that was to be expected. What I did not expect from this memoir was the affection, compassion, and even reverence that Piper Kerman demonstrates for all the women she encountered while she was locked away in jail. That was the surprising twist: that behind the bars of women's prisons grow extraordinary friendships, ad hoc families, and delicate communities. In the end, this book is not just a tale of prisons, drugs, crime, or justice; it is, simply put, a beautifully told story about how incredible women can be, and I will never forget it.

No comments:

Post a Comment