5 February 2016

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

Title: Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison
Author: Piper Kerman
Year of publishing: 2010
Published by: Spiegel and Grau
Language: English/Swedish

I read the Swedish edition, by Norstedts.  

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.

Wow, so this book has a lot of negative reviews on Goodreads. For a book that is so popular, this is kind of unexpected. Most of those reviews can be summarised in one way:

"So, she's a well-off, educated, blonde girl who had to spend one year at a minimum security prison because she was stupid once. And she wants me to feel sorry for her?"

While everybody is entitled to their own opinion, I think these readers are missing the point with this book. Orange is the New Black is first and foremost, a memoir. This is Piper Kerman writing her story, from her point of view while drawing her own conclusions along the way. Every memoir is subjective, because it's personal (that kind of goes without saying, doesn't it?).

And yes, Kerman was lucky to come from a good family, She had a good lawyer and a strong supportive network on the outside. She was also lucky to have met so many good and caring women at Danbury, who helped her make those months bearable. But despite all the love and support, she went through her own personal hell. And then she wrote a book about it.

It would be one thing if she wrote only about herself and made this memoir a self pity-fest. Instead, she used this book as an opportunity to shed some much needed light on the reality of the American prisons and judicial system. She didn't just write about herself. She illustrated all the disturbing elements of the prison life. The apathy of the management, the incompetence of the personnel, the sexual harassment. She made us question the system.

Kerman's time at Danbury (and the two other prisons she spent time in while waiting to testify in a trial) opened her eyes to the world that was completely unknown to her. It even made me question my attitude towards this whole concept of "crime and punishment". Don't get me wrong, I still believe that if you commit a crime, you should face consequences. Question is, what good is your sentence if you're not getting the right help to get back into society, and actually make your punishment be worth something.

Orange is the new Black: Mitt År i Ett Kvinnofängelse - The Swedish edition

It's also kind of funny how some of the nicer guards she met couldn't wrap their heads around how a nice girl like Kerman could end up behind bars. But that's the way society works, no matter what country you go to. Some people expect you to be a certain way because of the way you look, or because of your name.

As Kerman put it herself,

“We have a racially based justice system that overpunishes, fails to rehabilitate, and doesn't make us safer.”

This is a memoir, but the women in Piper's life at Danbury take up a lot of space in this book. She writes about them with honesty and warmth. She basically says that when the system that is supposed to not only detain the inmates but to rehabilitate them, doesn't give a dime about their well-being and their basic rights, it's up to the inmates themselves to care of each other.

When I started reading this book. I didn't have much sympathy for Kerman myself. After all, she was willingly participating in drug trafficking. Drugs kill millions of people around the world, every year. They destroys lives and families. How can I feel sorry for someone who was participating in something that hurts people so much?

But the more I read, the more I felt for Piper. Mainly because I kept imagining myself in her place. What if I had done something stupid a long time ago, and had to go to jail because of it? I think that people who are quick to judge her should do a mental exercise and imagine themselves in a similar position. We all make mistakes. And Kerman did not shy away from the reality of her own actions. In prison, she met a lot of drug addicts, women whose lives had been destroyed by drugs and eventually she came to a realisation that she was responsible for their misery, even indirectly. I felt a lot more respect for her from that moment on.

So, yes, Kerman was more well-off than most of the women who enter this system, and when she got out, she got a lot of support from her friends and family. But that doesn't make her story any less poignant and compelling.

My rating: 4/5 stars

P.S. I gave it a 5/5 at first, but then I realised that this book ends way too abruptly. She comes out, she gets a job, and writes a few closing paragraphs, summarising her experiences. I would have loved to learn more about the time right after her release. How did she cope with being on the outside again? How did she handle relationships? A longer epilogue would have been nice.

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