|Orange Is the New Black
3 / 5
"International baggage claim in the Brussels airport was large and airy, with multiple carousels circling endlessly."
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.
I have just begun watching the TV series that is based on this book, so I won't be discussing much about that. AmberBug gave me this audiobook a few years ago, having received it from a publisher friend. This was well before the show had been made, and so while I was interested in reading it, it wasn't until everyone was talking about the show that I really started to push it up towards the front of my queue. I'm glad I did; it was certainly interesting! A very unique story, really. Piper Kerman is unfortunately forced to pay for a small mistake she made over a decade ago, and must serve time in prison. She is sentenced to 15 months at the Danbury FCI - this also interested me greatly, since until a few weeks ago, I worked at Western Connecticut State University, which is located in the same city. (And, WCSU does get a brief mention! That made me smile.) Kerman is a typical upper-middle-class white woman, which made her experiences so enthralling to me because I would often think about how I might have handled the same situations she encountered while on the inside. Some things she dealt with the way I probably would have; others, she went an entirely unexpected direction, but things always seemed to work out all right. (Which sometimes surprised me!)
What I liked best about the book was how the author concluded by realizing that, ultimately, our American correctional system is broken. People are incarcerated and simply left to their own devices; there is no help to minimize recidivism. I've been seeing this for years with my past work in the Prison Book Program: training programs for convicts are abysmal, for the most part. They don't help prisoners prepare the necessary skills (technology they've missed out on being a big one that Kerman mentions) that they'll need for when they are released, and therefore find it much easier to go back to a life of crime. I think that part is what will stick with me most after having read this book.
The author herself sometimes bothered me, but she kept the book moving with anecdote after anecdote, and managed to make it one cohesive story. Her interactions with the woman who put her behind bars in the first place was the most interesting part to me: I don't know if I could have reacted the same way Kerman did. However, you never do know until you are in that sort of a situation - and I hope to goodness that I never am!
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