Behind Bars in ‘Orange is the New Black’

6314763Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman
Spiege & Grau, April 6, 2010 (Nonfiction; Memoir)

My Rating: I’d go there again (4/5)

I moderate the nonfiction book club at the library where I work. I’m not much of a nonfiction reader, so at times this is a challenging task for me, especially picking the books to discuss for each monthly meeting. For July I decided on Orange is the New Black. I knew that it was a t.v. show, but beyond that, I was simply thinking practically. Book club sets cost money, and since Orange is the New Black is popular, I was pretty sure that it would at least get used again.

I didn’t expect to like Orange is the New Black, but as soon as I got through chapter one, I was hooked. This was a great memoir and one that I found well written and perfect for readers who do not normally gravitate towards nonfiction (my hand is raised here). Kerman combines thought provoking information about the American prison system with engaging anecdotes from her time at Danbury Correctional Facility. There was a great balance between the info and Kerman’s own experiences, and it was that combination that kept me flipping through the pages. Orange is the New Black opened my eyes to the harsh realities of prison life, which often seemed contradictory. On one hand, prison didn’t seem as bad as I expected. Kerman seemed to adapt well and conducted her stay in prison with poise and wisdom. But when you looked beyond Kerman’s matter-of-fact tone, that’s when you really understood how illogical the prison system really is. I think the scene that struck me the most is when Piper is attending a seminar to prep her and her fellow prisoners for release. Teaching the women about health was a correctional officer who worked in food services at Danbury:

The guy from food services was very nice and very funny. We liked him a lot. He told us that it was important to eat right, exercise, and treat your body as a temple. But he didn’t tell us how to get health care services that people with no money could afford. He didn’t tell us how we could quickly obtain birth control and other reproductive health services. He didn’t recommend any solutions for behavioral or psychiatric care, and for sure some of those broads needed it. He didn’t say what options there might be for people who had struggled with substance abuse, sometimes for decades, when they were confronted by old demons on the outside (p. 249-50).

I was shocked to learn that prisoners are given virtually no support in returning to the world outside of prison. How is this rehabilitative? To me, it seemed like most prisoners were set up for failure from the get-go. Unless a prisonor had the type of support system that Piper had, the world outside of prison can be a very scary place. Imagine being locked up for 15 years and smartphones are invented by the time you come out, how do you cope with that?

Orange is the New Black got me thinking about issues that I’d never considered before. This issue about the actual purpose of prison formed a large part of the discussion when the book club met at my library. Some people felt little sympathy for the prisoners, but most recognized how broken this system seems. Many of the “characters” that populate Kerman’s book could definitely make it in the free world, and many wanted to, but without someone supporting them on the outside, many were doomed with failure.

Ultimately, I was surprised in reading Orange is the New Black. I didn’t think I would like it, and I was worried that it would be a pity party offered up by the author. Kerman never once decried the fact that she was sent to prison. She admitted that she had committed a crime and was willing to accept the consequences, and I admire the author for that. This book was well-written and gets you thinking about a segment of the population that I don’t think is on many people’s radar. That fact that I’m thinking about the book and the issues that it raised days after finishing reading it, is a mark of how engaging I found this book. I don’t have any interest in watching the Netflix show, but I am curious about how Canadian prisons stack up in comparison. Some future research my be required on my part.

Similar Reads

When I was looking for similar reads to bring to my book club meeting, I found several that looked very promising. I haven’t read the following books, but I think they would be good follow up choices for anyone that has enjoyed Orange is the New Black.

Learning about how Piper got herself involved in the drug trade was eye opening. For a deeper look at the drug trade, see Strange Trade for the story of two women who become big players. It will offer a much less Americanized look at drugs than Orange is the New Black.

Strange Trade: The Story of Two Women Who Risked Everything in the International Drug Trade

Since books played a big part of Piper’s coping methods in prison, I’m curious about Running the Books, the memoir of a prison librarian. This one comes recommended via a co-worker, so I know it will be good.

Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian


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