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Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison -- a Powerful Memoir by Piper Kerman

Piper Kerman's memoir reveals how prison changed her life, and why warehousing people who commit crimes is such a waste of human potential.
 
 
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Piper Kerman was a 20-something Smith College graduate, somewhat adrift and in search of adventure, which she eventually found in an older woman named Nora. Intimidating, impossibly cool, and always with cash on hand, Nora introduced her to the international heroin trade, a dangerous, unlikely universe for a "well-educated young lady from Boston," as Kerman describes herself in her new memoir, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison (Random House). Eventually, Kerman got out of the drug business, but 10 years later and living in New York, her past suddenly caught up with her. She was charged with criminal conspiracy and sentenced to 15 months in federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut.

Kerman is the first to say that hers was not a harsh sentence, not by U.S. criminal justice standards anyway. "A minimum security women's federal facility is probably your best-case scenario if you're going to be incarcerated," she says, as we sit by the window in her sunny Brooklyn apartment. Five years after getting out of prison, she remains acutely aware of her good fortune -- in having had resources, a private attorney, a devoted fiance and even a job waiting for her on the outside. Unlike many prisoners, who frequently end up locked up again after serving their time, often on a minor parole violation, hers was always destined to be a temporary stay. (She even got a book deal out of it.)

Despite its cheeky title, Kerman's memoir is no breezy snapshot of her travails as an unlikely convict. It is a serious, poignant narrative about the failings of the U.S. prison system and its effects on the people who are warehoused in it -- women who became her friends and allies, most of whom she would never have crossed paths with in the outside world.

Blond and blue-eyed, Kerman was reminded constantly that she did not fit the mold of the typical prisoner, a reality she did not need to go to prison to learn. Race was inscribed at every level of her experience, albeit sometimes in ways that she did not expect. One memorable passage from her memoir recalls what she encountered upon first arriving at Danbury; she describes avoiding eye contact with her fellow prisoners only to be "periodically accosted" in a community custom she came to call the "welcome wagon."

"You're new? How are you doing, honey? Are you okay?"

Most of them were white. This was a tribal ritual that I would see play out hundreds of times in the future. When a new person arrived, their tribe -- white, black, Latino, or the few and far between "others"-- would immediately make note of their situation, get them settled, and steer them through their arrival. If you fell into that "other category -- Native American, Asian, Middle Eastern -- then you got a patchwork welcome committee of the kindest and most compassionate women from the dominant tribes.

The other white women brought me a bar of soap, a real toothbrush and toothpaste, shampoo, some stamps and writing materials, some instant coffee, Cremora, a plastic mug, and perhaps most important, shower shoes to avoid terrible foot fungi. It turned out that these were all items that one had to purchase at the prison commissary. You didn't have the money to buy toothpaste or soap? Tough. Better hope that another prisoner would give it to you. I wanted to bawl every time another lady brought me a personal care item and reassured me, "It'll be okay, Kerman."

"It's not like I loved everyone there and everyone loved me," Kerman tells me, adding that the racial lines weren't drawn nearly as firmly as the "welcome wagon" would suggest. "But the degree to which people look out for each other -- which is completely necessary because the system is certainly not looking out for anyone -- was very surprising. And moving."

Indeed, the humanity Kerman discovers in an institution engineered to be dehumanizing is one of the powerful themes in the book. Yet, at the same time, those who run the prison system invest almost nothing in the rehabilitative potential of its inmates. "No one who worked in 'corrections' appeared to give any thought to the purpose of our being there," Kerman writes, "any more than a warehouse clerk would consider the meaning of a can of tomatoes, or try to help those tomatoes understand what the hell they were doing on the shelf."