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 at 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.
(Synopsis from book cover; 2011 Spiegel & Grau Trade Paperback Edition)
Why did I decide to read a novel about a woman who spent a year in a woman’s prison? Well, it actually came about in one of those many conversations that I have after school with my fellow English teachers. One of the other English teachers that I work with had sparked my interest in the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” back in December when we were on break. She and I had both watched the first season of the series and we were both absolutely in love with the story.
It was during one of our many conversations that this same teacher mentioned that a friend of hers had read the book, Orange is the New Black, before she started watching the show. As we talked about this, the idea became for the both of us and the other English teacher in our building to read the book in a sort of “book club” for the English teachers. I immediately whipped out my phone, got on Amazon and ordered the 3 copies of the book that we would need. I don’t know that I had ever been so excited to read a book!
I’ll be honest though…at first I had trouble getting started with the book. This is not at all a reflection on Kerman’s writing. The problem was that I had watched the Netflix series before I read the book. I must warn you…if you plan on reading the book and have not yet seen the series…do not, I repeat, do NOT watch the series before you read the book. It’s not that there are any real spoilers in the show or vice versa…it’s that the show is adapted from the book. This meant that I had a preconceived idea of how things were going to unfold in the novel, and when they didn’t exactly match up with each other, I began to get confused. This of course does not mean that I dislike one or the other, it just means that the information is presented in different ways and, of course, names have been changed for the show.
However, I’m not writing this so that you know about the show and the novel – I’m writing this so you know what I thought of the novel itself. In my opinion, I feel that Kerman did a fantastic job of writing about her experience in Orange is the New Black. I was fascinated by the relationships that she created while in prison. It wasn’t that Kerman became someone she wasn’t before, it was that she found (or rediscovered) another side of her – the side that will fight for survival without putting herself at risk doing so. It was also quite interesting to learn about the stories of the other women that Kerman lived with.
Even in the synopsis of the book it says that at times the story is “enraging.” I believe that I felt this way the most when Kerman explains the process that the women go through just as they are about to be released from prison to go home. It was shocking to me the lack of information that is given to these women as they are supposedly being “reeducated” so that they can enter and be successful in society. I felt that we are letting these women (and men) down by not giving them the proper resources to help them try to break any type of cycle if that may be the case. There are also not the proper resources for these women (and men) to be able to better their lives while they are in prison, even though they are told that they have those opportunities.
I don’t want to give much away about the novel because I found myself drawn into Kerman’s story. She uses a wonderful combination of humor, anger, honesty, and even a sense of sadness and desperation as she takes the reader along on her journey. Kerman has such an ease of writing that I found it impossible to stop reading the book (even though I was supposed to be staying on track with the other teachers). I have a great amount of respect for what Kerman went through, and I love the fact that she has also included Justice Reform Resources of groups who are trying to help those that are in prison, or family members of those in prison. This is a definite must read!