{Book Review} Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison

“A compelling, often hilarious, and unfailingly compassionate portrait of life inside a women’s prison.
When Piper Kerman was sent to prison for a ten-year-old crime, she barely resembled the reckless young woman she’d been when, shortly after graduating Smith College, she’d committed the misdeeds that would eventually catch up with her. Happily ensconced in a New York City apartment, with a promising career and an attentive boyfriend, she was suddenly forced to reckon with the consequences of her very brief, very careless dalliance in the world of drug trafficking.

Kerman spent thirteen months in prison, eleven of them at the infamous federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut, where she met a surprising and varied community of women living under exceptional circumstances. In Orange Is the New Black, Kerman tells the story of those long months locked up in a place with its own codes of behavior and arbitrary hierarchies, where a practical joke is as common as an unprovoked fight, and where the uneasy relationship between prisoner and jailer is constantly and unpredictably recalibrated.

Revealing, moving, and enraging, Orange Is the New Black offers a unique perspective on the criminal justice system, the reasons we send so many people to prison, and what happens to them when they’re there?”*

This memoir begins with an interesting premise: a privileged blonde white woman goes into women’s prison, mingling with other women with entirely diverse backgrounds and races, mostly from the lower-class side of the social status pyramid. She was sentenced to stay there for a year. How will she survive, and will she ever fit in?

It’s a shame to know that I never would have heard of this book had not one of my book clubs recommended it for our monthly read. This was actually supposed to be for January, but it took me almost a month to read it, and quite a long time after to remember to write a review about it. Since the Goodreads blurb pretty much sums the book up, I will just spit out my thoughts.

I do not usually read memoirs or anything nonfiction, really, except for those book collections of murders and histories of useless things, so reading Orange is somewhat a new experience for me. It’s not my first time to read a memoir, but somehow this one feels the most recent and something that several people still experience today. Millions of people go to prison every year, and a lot of them are women, too. It might seem close-minded of me to think so, but I have always thought of prison as a man-dominated place, as they usually are the ones who commit the most publicized crimes and such. I don’t think I am alone in this, though, which is why Orange is getting quite a bit of attention. Kerman’s book opens us to the world of the women who quietly go into prison for crimes mostly related to drugs. She gets to meet several of them, and I really found each of the characters she introduced interesting. So what took me so long to finish it?

I wanted to like it. In fact, I do. As the book goes on, I sensed that Piper really changed for the better as she writes about her observations, socialization with the other prisoners and officers, experiences, and reflections. We get to know several interesting prisoners, some of them motherly and repentant, others bullheaded and rebellious. Some officers are shown as corrupt and unfair, while some are considerate and patient. It’s a world that feels so real, is so real. It’s just sometimes I feel like what she writes are somewhat repetitive. I get that she learned to live with what she’d done, she’s ready to start a new life, she runs and does yoga, etc., but sometimes I just want to skip it and read about what Pop, Natalie, Janet, Delicious, and the other people around her are up to. It is really thoughtful of her to point out what is lacking in the prison system as well, but until the end, I don’t see her suggesting ways on how to really improve it. Also, whatever happened to the inmates after she left? She said she would love to be in touch with them again. Some of them were released/sent to the halfway house around the same time she did, and I was really waiting for a time when she would describe seeing them again, how they changed and adjusted to their new lives, and everything else. I mean, she sounded affectionate when she described her inmates. 

On the other hand, I really enjoyed her vivid description of prison life. Granted, her stay in prison wasn’t as difficult as how other prisons must be like, but Piper Kerman did a good job of detailing her 15-month stay in Danbury. Her sense of camaraderie and friendship with the other inmates were fun to read, and I could totally imagine the events from her point of view. Most of all, I loved the people she met. They were so diverse in character and personality that they essentially made the book for me. It does change my preliminary judgment of how women prisoners are like. I am aware that there are those other prisons where the inmates are vicious and tough, but in this book, the inmates are just normal people who did what they did because they were desperate to get out of their current situations. Some of them have changed for the better, and in the end most of them are just as scared of the outside as most of us are scared of the inside. Reading about them does change one’s perspective somehow.

I feel differently about prison now, and I’m glad Orange was responsible for that. I don’t regret reading it at all. I’m glad I did. 

In a nutshell…

Rating: 3/5
Author: Piper Kerman
Original Language: English
Published: 6 April 2010 by Spiegel & Grau
Genre: Autobiographical > Memoir, Nonfiction,