Title: Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison
Author: Piper Kerman
Release Date: March 8, 2011
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
When Piper Kerman was a young college graduate, she got mixed up in a drug smuggling ring. But now, ten years later, she’s put her youthful indiscretions behind her. She’s in a committed relationship and is a successful communications executive. But Piper’s past comes back to haunt her when the drug ring is busted and she’s named as a smuggler. Piper is sentenced to fifteen months in a federal women’s prison, and she must struggle to learn the rules of her new life and understand the unique culture behind bars.
Piper Kerman made some mistakes in her past. She doesn’t deny that in Orange is the New Black, nor does she try to sugarcoat what she did. But, in the grand scheme of things, Kerman was much more guilty of naivety and ignorance than she was of smuggling – her only involvement in the ring was to deliver a large cash payment. Her sentence seems harsh to both herself and those around her, especially considering she’s a productive member of society, yet what she learns and experiences in prison is invaluable.
Kerman’s portrayal of prison is fascinating, to say the least. Her memoir is written in a narrative style, and it reads like fiction. Kerman does an excellent job giving the reader a glimpse into prison culture. Her fear at the beginning of Orange is the New Black is palpable; she has no idea what to expect and how she will survive this experience. But, with the help of some generous fellow prisoners, Kerman begins to learn how to live in prison. She puts a face on these women that society would rather forget about. The reader gets to know them and comes to care about them.
The commentary on prisons is also very interesting in Orange is the New Black. It’s no secret that the U.S. prison system is in desperate need of reform, and through Kerman’s eyes, we can see why. She also discusses mandatory minimum sentencing, which is why she received such a harsh sentence. At the same time, though, it’s thought provoking, because while Kerman didn’t understand what she was doing, her ignorance is no excuse for her actions. Despite the reader’s sympathies, she was involved in drug smuggling and she had to pay the price, one some would say was justified.
The most interesting and rewarding part of Orange is the New Black is Kerman’s personal growth. When she arrived in prison, she was timid and afraid. Prison forced her to grow up, to become a strong person. What’s more, it made her rethink her actions in life and compelled her to take responsibility for what she had done. Kerman ran into many drug offenders in prison, women who had no hope because, as soon as they were released, they’d fall back into their old habits. Kerman had compassion for these women and realized that, by participating in a drug smuggling ring, she was partially responsible for what was happening.
Overall, Orange is the New Black was a fascinating memoir. It was easy to sympathize with Kerman, even when she was difficult to like, and her growth over the course of the memoir made it a rewarding read. The portrayal of prison culture and commentary on sentencing and the US prison system is worth reading. If you’re interested in memoirs and narrative non-fiction, this is a great book to pick up.