Saturday, January 25, 2014

Orange is the New Black

I feel like I’m well on my way in Project 84, and I’m really starting to hit my groove when it comes to reading. Now, it’s time to get the posting under control! After the next couple posts of books that I’ve already completed, I am making it my goal to get the entries up in a more timely fashion – within 2 or 3 days of finishing the book. Hopefully life will stop getting in the way!

With that in mind, Book 5 of Project 84 is:

Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black
by Piper Kerman

Like a lot of people this year, I got very into Orange is the New Black on Netflix. I was turned on to it by several friends, and they were right. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend the show. The plot is good, the characters are unbelievable, and the writing is really solid. Not to mention it has a killer opening theme song by Regina Spektor.

The book…was a little less satisfying. But still an interesting read.

Whether you’ve seen the show or not, the book follows a similar narrative. It is a memoir by Piper Kerman – a pretty, blonde, upper middle class woman who was sent to jail for 15 months based on a 5-year-old drug charge. In her 20s, Kerman had been involved with international drug trafficking, drawn into that world by a girlfriend who was attached to an African drug lord. The self-described “WASP” ends up at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut and served 15 months.

The book centers on her experiences in prison. The women she met, the observations she made, and what she learned about the American prison system. It’s full of hilarious and sometimes horrifying anecdotes, but the main purpose of the book seems to be a push for necessary prison reform in the United States.

I’m fairly forgiving when it comes to memoirs. I’m not going to pick apart the writing – or, of course, the narrative – of a person who’s trying to share their story with the world. Memoirs are written not really as a literary undertaking, but because the writer has an interesting and compelling story to tell. I have at least three memoirs on the list for Project 84, and this will be true for all of them.

I guess I just expected this book to be…grittier. I’ve read more than my fair share of prison memoirs, watched documentaries…(I keep wanting to say “I’ve watched Oz,” but I feel like that’s not helping my case very much, haha), and I’ve come away from all of them with a similar “holy shit, people live like that?” sort of feeling.

Reading the book, Piper’s situation in prison just doesn’t seem so terrible. There’s little violence, quite a bit of “freedom” within the prison walls, and the prisoners seem to develop an intense sort of camaraderie. I’m not suggesting that I would want to trade places with any of them, but I also didn’t break the law. For prison, Danbury Correctional seems…fine. They have a hair “salon” room where the women can do each others’ hair, Piper goes for coffee “dates” in the morning with fellow prisoners, and at one point they even have a “Children’s Day” where they throw a makeshift carnival for the mother’s behind bars and their children.

The prisoners refer to Danbury as “camp”, and that’s exactly what it seemed like to me…a really terrible summer camp.

Now, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t agree with Piper’s overall thesis: that prison reform would do a world of good for the American prison system. I could explain in detail the specifics of what I agreed with, but we’re probably better off if I use her words:
“Nothing about the daily workings of the prison system focuses its inhabitants’ attention on what life back on the outside, as a free citizen, will be like. The life of the institution dominates everything. This is one of the awful truths of incarceration, the fact that the horror and the struggle and the interest of your immediate life behind prison walls drives the ‘real world’ out of your head. That makes returning to the outside difficult for many prisoners.” – Page 124
“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. Instead, our system of “corrections” is about arm’s-length revenge and retribution, all day and all night.” – Page 180

The point that prison focuses so little on the rehabilitation of prisoners is not only true, but a valid rebuke of the system as a whole. Neither I nor Piper is saying that prison shouldn’t exist, nor that it should be “lighter” or that punishment isn’t important. When you break the law, you should be punished, and it should be harsh. But is it really in anyone’s best interest to put prisoners back out on the streets who are only going to reoffend and end up back behind bars? Wouldn’t it be a better allocation of taxpayer money to make sure that some resources are put towards preventing against re-offense? Piper has been working on this problem for far more time than I have, and even includes resources in the back of the book to get more information. But even though I thought her time in prison wasn’t “so bad”, in reading this memoir, I couldn’t help but agree with her that the system could use some alteration.

The real saving grace of this book was that I really liked Piper. I felt for her. She understood that she had done something wrong, that she had broken the law, and that serving her time was important. She didn’t blame anyone else for putting her behind bars, she didn’t blame the system, she knew that she had done something that would hurt others and, most importantly, was against the law. My favorite line in the book is:
 “Because I would appear as a government witness, the AUSA, the woman who put me in jail (well actually, that was me; she just prosecuted) got to prepare me.” – Page 283 
And it is because I like Piper, because I can’t help but feel for her, that I am so willing to get behind her premise. And it is also the reason I recommend the book to my blog readers. Yeah, some of her personal examples led to eye rolling, and her experiences behind bars weren’t horrifying – but her thesis and reason for writing the book rings true:
 “The lesson that our prison system teaches its residents is how to survive as a prisoner, not as a citizen.” – Page 298

5 posts down for Project 84! And I have one more book that is already finished which I will post the review for within the next couple days. I seem to be hitting my groove with the reading and entries, and I’m enjoying the cross-section of literature that I’ve chosen for myself.

Next Review: The Hours by Michael Cunningham (Expected posting date: Monday, January 27th)

**All annotations refer to this version of Orange is the New Black, published by Spiegel & Grau in 2011**

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps because I read the book first, I liked it better than the show. For some reason, I couldn't get into the show...probably because it didn't show things exactly like she wrote them.
    Reading the book, I kept thinking that she was trying to make more out of things than they actually were...but I still wouldn't have wanted to be in her shoes!