Book cover for Orange is the New Black. Shows orange canvas shoes on a black background.

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

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“I knew that I would have to be brave. Not foolhardy, not in love with risk and danger, not making ridiculous exhibitions of myself to prove that I wasn’t terrified–really genuinely brave. Brave enough to be quiet when quiet was called for, brave enough to observe before flinging myself into something, brave enough to not abandon my true self when someone else wanted to seduce or force me in a direction I didn’t want to go, brave enough to stand my ground quietly.”

Orange is the New Black

I listened to Orange Is the New Black as an audiobook narrated by Cassandra Campbell on my way to work and on road trips.

After reading some reviews of Orange Is the New Black I was getting quite frustrated so I decided to have a small rant.

Rant

Whether people realize it or not they are, in fact, talking more about what the prison system is like for men and women. Even if they are only doing so to state that Kerman’s memoir is not an accurate representation of that system they are still talking about it on a scale that hasn’t been matched in recent years.

Do I think Piper Kerman had the white, wealthy, short version of prison? Yes, does that make me inherently hate the book she wrote? No. She wrote her experience and pointed out that she had it easy compared to others on more than one occasion.  

Not to mention most of the people trying to belittle Kerman’s time in prison and her subsequent memoir are the same people who have never faced any prison time let alone the harder version they apparently wish Kerman had to face. Her time in prison was not as gut-wrenching as it is for so many others, but that in no way makes it an easy thing to face. I think the fact that she at least took the time to write the book about the subject and open some people’s eyes is worthy of applause. Also, if you can write a better memoir about your time in prison that will be more honest and open more eyes then great DO IT and I for one will thank you for trying to make the world a better place rather than just tearing it down because her life wasn’t hard enough for you to enjoy reading about at home. 

For those of you complaining that she wrote it like pop culture maybe you should read what Kerman had to say on the subject: “I hoped if I told the story the right way, in a sort of a pop culture way, that I might be able to get somebody to pick up a book about prisons who wouldn’t otherwise read it.”

And last but not least Kerman did more than just write the book. She also serves on the Board of the Women’s Prison Association and teaches inmates in prisons and uses the fame from the book to speak out about the disparities and injustices of prison life.

What I liked

I think overall this was an honest and open memoir about Kerman’s time in prison which cannot have been easy to write.

I enjoyed the segments about prison cooking. One particular dish in my family is a tradition that started because my mom discovered it in jail. We called it jailhouse menudo. My husband can’t stand it, but it’s a tradition for me and I think it tastes great. It was absorbing to hear about the ways that prisoners make food more enjoyable with such limited resources.

I was enthralled by the truth about the rehabilitative services provided. I never imagined that prisons were dens of greater knowledge and true rehabilitation; I’ve always known better than that, but I was still enraged at the complete lack of any services.

The inclusion of sexuality was an important factor. The disdain shown by counselors for lesbians and “gay-for-the-stay” inmates was infuriating. Also, that transgender individuals were denied their medication was painful to realize.

It will never fail to amaze me that female prisons are often still staffed with a largely male population. While I don’t believe that gender should decide if a person is fit to work in a certain area it is still important to ensure the safety of inmates. I’m not saying women don’t attack other women. What I am trying to say is that there is a difference in the power dynamic when an all-female prison is run by a nearly all-male staff.

I hope that some of these things have started to change since Kerman’s prison stay in 2004. I know they haven’t changed nearly enough.

What I did not like

One thing that did bother me was Kerman’s views toward anyone in the psych ward as she bordered toward prejudiced. She showed disdain that prisoners who needed treatment weren’t receiving any and yet those who were receiving treatment also received disdain.

I will admit that some sections came across as Kerman touting how amazing people thought she was. However she would, admittedly, have stood out in prison so it makes sense that people behaved differently toward her than they might otherwise have done.

Also, early on it does come across as though Kerman were trying to shift the blame. However, by the end it is clear that she realizes her mistake not only the drug trafficking but also in regards to her “lone-wolf stance” that dug her into a deeper hole.

Who I would recommend it to

Readers of memoirs, non-fiction, activists.

Even if this book doesn’t fall into your usual realm of interest you may enjoy it and it may teach you something.

About the Author

If you’ve read Orange Is the New Black you know as much about the author as I do. If you haven’t read the book I’d recommend it. Kerman showed bravery and strength.

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