Thursday, 1 January 2015

Book Review: Orange Is the New Black - My Time in A Women's Prison by Piper Kerman ⛓

I'd been meaning to read this book for a while. Orange Is the New Black: My Time in A Women's Prison by Piper Kerman does what it says on the tin. It's the poignant, witty and charming memoirs of a woman who served a year in prison following a decade old drug charge.

Of course, I didn't come to this book a stranger. I binge-watched every episode of the last two seasons of Orange Is the New Black on Netflix beforehand; season one in procrastination of my university final exams, season two in celebration of finishing them (I'm debating booking a day off work for season three this summer). In reading this book I had more of an agenda than I usually would. I desperately wanted to know how real some of the characters I have become so besotted with in the show are, plus I'm forever curious about the rhyme and reason between books and their screen adaptations. Orange Is the New Black, the book, wasn't a disappointment.

There was less of a narrative than I was maybe expecting, but that's perhaps more of a reflection of my own naivety than anything else. The show of course is full of sub-plots and character back stories, all things which are not absent from the memoir but are far less sensationalised: less twists, less coincidences, actually like real life. If anything, I was more surprised at just how much had been lifted from the book untouched. Characters and witty one liners, mainly. Each character is crafted to perfection - but I suppose that's what happens when they're not fiction but actual women wrapped in the prose of a paperback. The book can be a little hard to follow at times, with a constant flow of inmates being referred to, although the central figures in Piper's prison life are clear as day.

The book gives a fantastic and intriguing account of life behind bars at a women's minimum security prison in the USA: a combination of anecdotes and inner-thoughts from Piper Kerman's point of view. She shows a self-awareness about her privilege in the system: her short sentence, middle-class upbringing, supporting family, white skin and blonde hair means that nothing is as bad for her in comparison the majority of her co-inmates. The narrative at these points wavers between humbling and pretentious. On one hand relatable, as I and most readers would probably be in the same boat if they landed themselves in prison, on the other hand a philosophical tangent with a 'special snowflake' vibe. All in all my relationship with author Piper Kerman is almost identical to my opinion of Piper Chapman, her on-screen double. Likeable, mostly, with a few irritating streaks. Good hearted, well-meaning. Not as interesting as the other Danbury inmates. The inmates at Danbury are colourful and heart-wrenching. Most doing time for involvement with drugs, the population is brimming with amazing women with life-plans and dreams making the most of a bad situation. I was glad to love each woman in Piper Kerman's book as much as I'd loved the ladies on screen.

Ultimately this is a book about how kind and amazing women can be in such a suffocating, harsh environment. As a sociology nerd, a firm believer that feminist is not the dirty word the internet would love you to believe and a constantly frustrated individual ("how is anything I'm doing with my life actually meaningful?"), these memoirs were quite perfect. Piper Kerman finishes on some startling facts and figures about America's prison system and how it's failing, catastrophically. Within the book she had placed faces and families behind each petty crime, showing the true awfulness of the 'corrections' and 'justice' system America has in place today. The book has it's purpose, to show the beautiful community of women hidden away and looking out for each other, and to highlight the neglect and flaws of prisons - how so simply they could be come more about rehabilitation, rather than institutionalisation.

The book is absorbing, eye-opening and well pieced together - I'd thoroughly recommend giving it a read. I'd like to read more books about the modern prison systems of the world, there's a few out there. I have a feeling that many experiences would be quite different from Piper Kerman's.

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