Friday, December 06, 2013

Reading: Orange is the New Black, Piper Kerman

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison
Piper Kerman
Speigel & Grau Trade, 2010
$16.00, 327 pages
ISBN: 978-0-385-52339-4

I kept hearing about the Netflix series and how great it was. I got curious and read the book first. I did not like it at all.

This is, as the title states, a memoir about one woman's experience in a minimum security prison. She gets entangled in a drug ring with her lesbian lover, transporting a suitcase full of drug money all over the world, gets caught for it 10 years down the line, then ends up in prison for about 15 months in Danbury, Connecticut. Just one big adventure according to her! Except for that part about prison.

Danbury, by the way, was near where Martha Stewart did her time back in 2004 and the event makes it into the book. Unlike Kerman, she said prison was "horrible."

I found the writing itself unmemorable, juvenile, exaggerated and in need of editing; the dialogue feels dead. I had a lot of trouble taking her seriously. She comes off self-absorbed and extremely privileged; a Smith college graduate, white, middle-class woman who, throughout her prison sentence, had the complete support of her family, including lawyers, a website (basically) set up on-line to update family and friends on her status and to send her books and whatever else to make her prison sentence more bearable, plus donations. Towards the end, she has a home, fiance (a man...I suppose she's not a lesbian anymore?) and a job to come home to. Many women have none of this coming out of prison. Nothing. No place to live, no job, maybe not even their kids. I call that pretty damn lucky.

I can't seem to shake the feeling that she's "cashing in" somehow. She did, indeed, get a book and Netflix series deal out of her experience-again, luck.

If a black woman wrote something like this, would she get the same response? Would it even get picked up? Probably not.

Blurb from the L.A. Times:

"This book is impossibly hard to put down because [Kerman] could be you. Or your best friend. Or your daughter."

Well, I couldn't wait to put it down and struggled with finishing it precisely because of the reasons stated above. I'm not sure Kerman could be me. Or anybody I know, actually.

A couple of things that made me think twice about her, about her choice of words and phrasing:

"Now I was a for-real, hardened con."

This, after receiving prison uniforms including steel-toed shoes. And-after being in prison a mere few days. That does not make you a "hardened criminal." Sorry.

At one point, she compares the prison "ghetto" (prison dorm B is referred to as that term) to the ghettos of Poland (!) after one of the ex-prisoners was interviewed in the newspaper and portrayed it (the experience of prison) as a sort of hotel getaway with barbed-wire fences: "Club Fed."  Perhaps that particular prisoner saying such a thing was a way for her to cope with the experience. But the way Kerman likened it so off-handedly, to Poland's ghettos was low-class and offensive. I'm assuming she's referencing the ghettos of Poland in World War II. Whether or not she did, still offensive.

In one scene, Piper got leave from prison and is transferred  to a Chicago Correctional Facility (Chicago Metropolitan Correctional Center), waiting to testify against a member of the drug ring she was involved in. This guy ratted out some of the people involved and basically got everyone sent to prison. The CMCC was way worse than what she was experiencing at Danbury prison (where she's serving her sentence). She is shocked-shocked!-at the conditions: cells and prison uniforms were dirty, inmates unstable and crazy. Obviously, it was not as bucolic as Danbury. The biggest problem at the MCC, she complains, is that there is nothing to do but wait. You're in prison. That shouldn't be your biggest problem.

From page 293, talking about how "no one" ran the prisons:

 "No one who worked in corrections appeared to give any thought to the purpose of our being there anymore than a warehouse clerk would consider the meaning of a can of tomatoes..."

"What's the point, what's the reason, to lock people away for years, when it seems to mean so very little, even to the jailer's who hold the key? How can a prisoner understand their punishment to have been worthwhile to anyone, when it's dealt with in a way so offhand and indifferent?"

Hm. Maybe because the U.S prison system is a business and corporations profit off of them. Or, that it is used as "social control." Most of the people we lock up are minorities-particularly a disproportionate amount of black men-and the poor for minor offenses who are given unjustified exorbitant sentences. Check out The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. It'll open your eyes.

There's an interview in the back of the book with Smith College, her alma mater. A selected question from the interview:

"Do you mean your experience was dramatically different than popular conceptions of prison because you were in a minimum security prison...middle-class, white woman...privileged background than most women you were locked up with?"

She says neither and goes on to say TV/cop shows are well-entrenched in our society, portraying an image that isn't realistic. I totally agree with that. But, I think the interviewer was spot-on.

It seems as if she romanticized the experience a bit. All the women are just happy little campers dealing with their prison sentences. Everybody gets along with everybody else. She makes it sound so inviting!

Now that she is out of prison, she has become an advocate for women in prison and currently serves on the Board of Women's Prison Association and gives lectures on the subject.

I have so much more to say, but it would take up pages. This is one of the most ridiculous books I've read. I'm glad I'm done with it and won't be reading it again.

The New Jim Crow book site
Piper Kerman's site

You can read more of my reviews at Goodreads

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