Earlier this summer, I discovered the new Netflix original series, Orange is The New Black, based on Piper Kerman's memoir of the same name. The series is fantastic and easily one of the best new shows of 2013. I binge watched it in less than a week and can't wait for season two. To tide me over and also to get a deeper look at Kerman's story, I bought her memoir.
A little background for those who are not familiar with the series...shortly after graduating from Smith College, Kerman dated a woman, Nora Jansen, who was dealing drugs internationally. Kerman got involved with money laundering and drug trafficking, crimes that caught up with her years later, after she had ended her relationship with Jansen and settled down Larry Smith, her fiancee, who knew nothing about her past. Kerman served thirteen months in a minimum security prison in Danbury, Connecticut for her crimes.
Although Kerman's book alludes to many of the colorful characters and crazy scenarios that have popped-up in the television series, the book leans more towards Kerman's observations regarding prison policies. Kerman paints a pretty bleak picture of the current prison system, with its outward stance on reform, yet in actuality it's a place where prisoners kill time before they are reintroduced to society without the skills to easily steer clear of recidivism.
Kerman is educated and from a wealthy background. Upon her release from Danbury, she had a job, finance and home waiting for her. She points out that a majority of the women were not returning to the same situation as her and in particular, they did not have the education or job skills to keep them from lapsing into old habits. Kerman found the education program to be nearly non-existant and the prison jobs were not often affording prisoners new or useful skills. As excited as they were to be released, many women dreaded leaving the comfort zone and structure of the prison.
Kerman never makes a plea for lessening punishments, but she does make a strong argument for making prison time an opportunity for positive change and making a bigger attempt to release prisoners back into society as capable individuals. Maybe we could spend less money on housing prisoners, if we spent a little more to make sure that the current prisoners were not basically set-up for failure upon release.
We need to make an investment in people and show compassion as they serve their time. It's not about letting people off without consequences, just making them feel like they have the ability to have value in society. The prisoners were constantly subjected to verbal abuse and made to feel worthless. It was maddening to read Kerman's accounts of prison bureaucracy and senseless rules. There seems to be so much wasted time and resources.
Beyond Kerman's take on the societal implications of prison, the book was fascinating from the stand-point of reading about a life that is so different from my own. Kerman seems to cover every possible facet of prison life that one might be curious about and it is covered in much greater detail than in the television series.
If you love the series, this book is a great companion piece. It's dryer and more analytical, but it will give you a good idea of where the lines blur between the fantasy of the show and reality.
My overriding sentiment upon finishing the book was one of respect for Kerman. I think it takes a lot of guts to admit your wrongs in such a public way. I also respect that she owned up to how her role in the drug trade had impacted those around her. Kerman really felt this guilt as she encountered drug addicts living with her in prison. Kerman took the worst time in her life and has not only grown from it, but by getting her story out, she is spreading awareness for an important social cause.