I like to go to prison in the springtime. It's not deliberate, really, I mean, how many people go to prison on a regular basis on purpose? Fear not, despite my unintended love for spending springtime in jail, I promise I don't have a criminal record. Other than a parking ticket or two, the record's squeaky clean. What I'm talking about here, is my tendency of late to read a really excellent, compelling memoir about prison and the failure of the American justice system while flowers bloom and birds chirp. It's hardly even something I realized I was interested in until I read my first "prison in springtime" book last year, Picking Cotton, a most excellent and revealing book. This year, as you may guess, the prison book is Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman. While prison is a place I hope to never go, and the justice system something I never hope to tangle with, having the doors to prison thrown open via the written word is something I find myself eager to embrace.
Orange is the New Black: My Year In a Women's Prison
by Piper Kerman
Spiegel & Grau
Piper Kerman is young, reckless, and lovelorn as a young Smith College grad when she allows her lover to pressure her into smuggling drug money. Soon after her one nerve-wracking foray into crime, she leaves her lover and returns to normal life in the U.S. desperate to forget her one indiscretion. Years on, living in New York with her soon-to-be fiance and earning a living as a freelance producer, Kerman is surprised and distraught when her past catches up with her in the form of two customs officers and a court date in Chicago, where she is charged with drug smuggling and money laundering. With the War on Drugs in full swing, making mandatory minimum sentences for any and all drug crimes regardless of circumstances at least ten years, Piper's best option is to plea guilty to her crime and hope for a much more lenient sentence. When all is said and done, Kerman finds herself reporting to Danbury, Connecticut for a year in minimum security women's prison.
What follows is Kerman's compelling, all-too-human story that uses her unique situation to lay bare the broken prison system and its often unexpectedly sympathetic captives. Within the pages, Kerman brings to light the awful feeling of exposure and powerlessness that come with a prison sentence. Despite being in a relatively low security portion of the prison system for a relatively short stretch of time, Kerman is struck by the humiliating rituals of the prison and her sudden downgrading to something less than human immediately upon her arrival within prison walls.
While Kerman doesn't excuse the crimes of the women she gets to know and even love within the prison walls, she does much to humanize and create sympathy for a subset of society struggling within the system. For many of the women she meets, making money in the underground economy is the only way of making any money at all, and the prison system does very little to help them succeed in a crime free life on the outside. As much as these women look forward to freedom, a feeling of trepidation lurks as they stumble through "exit" classes that do laughably little to address the practical aspects of living and working in a world that has continued to change in their absence. Kerman notes that the teachers of the classes, while occasionally well-meaning, could hardly propose a way of even finding an apartment in which to live upon release.
Orange is the New Black is at once profoundly revealing and effortlessly entertaining. Kerman has a vivid, honest voice that doesn't drift into self-pity but instead keenly observes the people around her both good and bad. She paints compelling and empathetic portraits of the prisoners that shared her life and made her time within the prison system bearable. At the same time, though, she shines a light on the dark corners of a life behind bars that most of us hope never to experience. Orange is the New Black is just the sort of book that people really do need to read, and it's just our luck that Kerman's book is nearly as entertaining as it is important.
(My copy's from LibraryThing Early Reviews, in case you're wondering!)