Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman
With a career, a boyfriend, and a loving family, Piper Kerman barely resembles the reckless young woman who delivered a suitcase of drug money ten years before. But that past has caught up with her. Convicted and sentenced to fifteen months in the infamous federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut, the well-heeled Smith College alumna is now inmate #11187-424 - one of the millions of people who disappear "down the rabbit hole" of the American penal system. From her first strip search to her final release, Kerman learns to navigate this strange world with its strictly enforced codes of behavior and arbitrary rules. She meets women from all walks of life, who surprise her with small tokens of generosity, hard words of wisdom, and simple acts of acceptance. Heartbreaking, hilarious, and at times enraging, Kerman's story offers a rare look into the lives of women in prison - why it is we lock so many away and what happens to them when they're there.
One of the more surprising things I realized while reading Orange is the New Black is just how little most people know about what goes on in prisons. Movies and such paint it as a place where everyone is your enemy and you'd be dumb not to carry a shiv, while a few people describe minimum security as a retreat! And most people don't even give a second thought to what happens to prisoners - out of sight, out of mind.
Kerman breaks down a lot of misconceptions about prison life. She highlights the strong bonds forged and tough lessons learned behind bars while also showing the triviality of many rules. Some of the stories she tells - about prisoners locked in solitary for no good reason or the apathy of staff towards prisoners - clearly point out where our justice systems fails. More than just telling her story, Kerman's memoir is a call for prison reform.
Kerman's intent is clear, and many of her stories highlight it, but Orange is the New Black reads more like a series of anecdotes than a political argument. She writes very well, portraying the women she was imprisoned with distinctly and without reproach. Kerman never talks about the other women in Danbury as if they're below her, and she takes full responsibility for her crime several times throughout the memoir.
Orange is the New Black is a powerful new perspective. Kerman is respectable and familiar, challenging stereotypes left and right. She writes with sentiment but without getting sappy, and she buffers her personal experience with factual statistics - both of which give the book more credibility. I would recommend Orange is the New Black as both an entertaining true story and as an expose on the federal penal system.
(And because I know you're wondering - no, the book is nothing like the TV show. Netflix's version is much more dramatic, sexual, and stereotypical than Kerman's memoir, although the general idea is the same).
Once Upon a Time...
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