Friday, August 16, 2013


About a month ago, Netflix dropped an entire season of a new original series called Orange is the New Black. I heard about it from several comedians I follow on Twitter and obsessively watched all 13 episodes in one week. It's shocking, bordering on graphic, endearing, and clever. I bothered my roommates and friends to watch it so I could discuss the story with them. Then I found out the series was inspired by a memoir of the same name.

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison, by Piper Kerman, details the author's life in a minimum security facility. She is doing time for a decade-old crime: she carried drug money (not drugs), once. As an educated, employed, drug-free, first-time offender, Kerman initially felt she was different than many of her fellow inmates--but "on the inside" she realizes she's not.

Kerman's description of her experience in the federal penitentiary system was, like its TV series counterpart, clever and shocking. It was also heartbreaking, angering, enlightening, and a thrill to read. The women she spent that year of her life with range in age, race, religion, crime, and life outlook, but somehow they all survive and form a makeshift community. Kerman learns the rules, mostly unwritten, and figures out the rituals of prison life, the ways the inmates have of normalizing their break from reality.

I think all of us can agree that our nation's criminal justice system is outdated, broken, and unjust. Kerman's memoir gives faces to the thousands of faceless inmates who shuffle in and out of this system daily, weekly, and yearly. While she can only tell her story, she introduces us to the women (and men) she meets during her time. She shows us real people doing real time for crimes that may or may not be real. Certainly there are "criminals" in prisons across the country, but there are also people only guilty of "wrong place, wrong time" ...or wrong race, living in the wrong neighborhood, and having the wrong childhood.

Kerman is lucky enough to have a support system, a solid lawyer, and even a job, held for when she is released (and she repeats this several times, which I found not braggy, but explicative--I think she wants the reader to know that she knows she could have had it so much worse in prison, but because of her background, she doesn't), but most inmates don't have any of these things. They left one shitty situation for another shitty situation. There are so many issues we could get into, but this is a post about a book, not about the failures of our prison system. Just go read this book, go research criminology, go be appreciative about your luck in life.

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