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Shortly after graduating from Smith College, theatre major Piper Kerman found herself immersed in a real life drama involving an international drug trafficking ring. Her role in the operation was relatively minor and short-lived, but while her karma wasn’t instant, there would be no escaping it. Years after extricating herself from her then girlfriend and the whole sordid business, after moving first to San Francisco where she landed a job with an infomercial company and met the man with whom she’d move to New York and eventually marry,two burly customs agents knocked on her door informing her some six years after the fact, that she had been indicted on money laundering and drug conspiracy charges. The drama that follows, culminating with a startling fifteen month stint, most of it spent at the Federal Prison Camp in Danbury Connecticut, is captured in her brave,beautiful and surprisingly funny memoir “Orange is the New Black.”
A riveting read, from the minute you hit that first page be prepared to eschew the telephone, television and Twitter; you’ll likely even fight sleep’s sweet seduction. It’s that compelling. Boasting a novel’s worth of colorful, charming and ultimately lovable characters, it’s difficult not to become instantly immersed in this upside down world where rules are unspoken and often illogical, where women are given the barest of bare essentials and make the most of them through resourcefulness, resilience and love.
Food is a very big deal in the big house. Even though the dining hall serves up an often inedible selection of mystery meat and vaguely identifiable allotments of starch and grease, the resourceful inmates work magic in one of two microwaves, concocting feasts from goodies squired on good days or purchased in the commissary. It might not be the gracious dining Piper ( I’ll call her by her first name, as I can still here the guards brusquely bark “Kerman” ) became accustomed to at Smith, but the dishes are surprisingly satisfying.
A minimum security facility with prisoners doing time for non-violent offenses like drug trafficking, forgery and e-bay fraud ( they even have a nun and a few other pacifists doing time for peaceful political protesting–whoa!) Danbury is not a violent place ( there is a maximum security prison down the hill that has seen some notoriously violent incidents), and the closest Piper comes to a physical altercation involves menacingly waving a pair of tongs at a new inmate who challenges her right to ferret out the coveted spinach at the salad bar.
This food obsession may contribute to the women’s obsession with Martha Stewart’s pending incarceration. Hoping she’ll do her three month sentence among them, most are crest-fallen when the domestic diva is shipped off to “Camp Cupcake” in Alderson. West Virginia. Piper speculates that Martha wasn’t admitted to Danbury ( despite requesting it so she could be near her 90 year old mother) because the place is a dump with moldy, maggot-filled bathrooms that flood every time it rains. Not a good thing to expose to such a high profile perfectionist.
Mold crept across the GED classroom, covering the desks and books. So instead of cleaning it up, the prison temporarily cancels the class. This puts an end to Piper’s job as a GED tutor and she winds up in the electric shop, where despite being called “Kermit” and sexually harassed by her pig of a boss, she becomes very handy. With rare exceptions, the guards and staffers–who are overwhelmingly male–are a real fun bunch, the sort who revel in disrespecting and often flat out harassing the women at every turn.
There are female officers on hand for the strip searches inmates are subjected to following every visiting day. Many of the women find them so degrading they actually avoid visitations. But it is those visits from her saintly fiancee Larry ( theirs is a mighty love) and her mom as well as an array of other relatives and friends along with the parcels of books they send that sustain Piper, and so she withstands the weekly invasions. She easily makes friends among the various prison “tribes,” learns yoga from another inmate, and adopts a prison zen that allows her to get through her time and do real penitence for her crime.
“Everybody who loved me wanted me to be innocent–tricked, duped, all unawares. But of course, that was not the case. All those years ago I wanted to have an adventure, an outrageous experience, and the fact of it being illegal made it all the more exciting.”
Piper begins to realize the impact her crime has had not only on her own life and the lives of those she loves, but also on the lives many of her fellow prisoners who have succumbed to substance abuse.
In the final leg of her stretch, with only two months to go, Piper is transferred via Con Air (the prisoner air lift her pal Pop, the crusty Russian gangster moll who runs the kitchen calls “nothin’ nice”) to testify at the trial of one of her co-defendants, a man she has never met. In a harrowing scene Piper and a motley assortment of prisoners, both male and female from various prisons are shackled and shipped practically like cargo to their next prison assignments. Piper will endure two such trips; the second one has her incredulously sitting next to Nora, the former lover who presumably ratted her out to the feds. Their inevitable confrontation provides some of the book’s most tense, funniest and moving moments as the two women reach a certain level of closure.
But the conditions in the Chicago lock -up are so dirty and depressing and with few phone calls to loved ones and only one visit from Larry, her emotions are wearing thin. Even though we know what happens, Piper’s despair is so palpable I start to share her irrational fears that she will some how be locked away forever, the Bureau of Prisons letting her linger in a Kafakaesque state for eternity. You just can’t put the book down, can’t abandon her until she’s finally released to breathe fresh, free air.
Though the title suggests a flippant frivolity, and humor–much of it dark–abounds, “Orange” sheds light on our nation’s broken penal system and some of the broken, but beautiful souls it swallows, warehouses and re-deposits years, often decades later, with nary a rehabilitative program or discernible skill set to make any sort of assimilation into society successful. In a nation that imprisons more people than any other, women have become the fastest growing incarcerated population. Many of them are serving lengthy sentences for drug offenses thanks to the mandatory minimums imposed in the 1980’s as a weapon in the government’s losing War on Drugs. Most of them–over 80%–are mothers. So the impact on families is both immediate and long term, with crime and incarceration often becoming a problem cycling from one generation to the next.
“Prison is a place where the U.S. government now puts not only the dangerous, but also the inconvenient–people who are mentally ill, people who are addicted, people who are poor and uneducated and unskilled.”
She fears for some of the women for whom prison has become a home, women who after lengthy terms will be going “home” to shelters or back into abusive relationships and dangerous situations. For some, prison is actually a safer, more welcoming place. And that is truly heartbreaking.
We spend more money incarcerating a person than sending someone to a top flight college. And like so many things in our government bureaucracies, we don’t have a hell of a lot to show for it. Stripping people of everything right down to their underpants and dignity is not the answer. I’m not suggesting prison should be a luxury spa vacation, and as Piper so vividly describes, even in so-called minimum security camps, it is anything but. We’ve got a real firm handle on the punishment side of prison, but with few exceptions, the correctional or rehabilitative side is all but absent. What little light these women find behind the prison gates is largely generated among themselves, through the respect, camaraderie and love they foster for each other.
Late in the night, after finishing the book, I flop in bed with visions of Naomi Watts and Cate Blanchett scrambling for the movie rights. I turn on the TV and there’s Martha Stewart arranging decorative candied lemon slices and–you’ll have to Google this baby–squeezable lemon scented name cards. Now my patience for the domestic diva is generally about as thin as one of her crafty doilies, but this night I find her presence particularly irksome. I recall her big talk after she left Alderson clad in that poncho some of her fellow inmates had fashioned for her, about all she would do to aid the plight of women behind bars. And to be fair, it’s only been five years. Maybe she’ll get to it. Yeah, right after she finishes another affordable line of high thread count sheets, mixes heretofore unimagined paint colors and all those other good Omnimedia things the world just can’t do without.
Good thing Piper Kerman had the courage to take the bitter lemons of her own harvest and make a tangy literary lemonade. Sweetened with grace, humor and compassion, “Orange is the New Black,” will do for understanding prison life what books like Kate Millett’s “The Loony Bin Trip” and Susanna Kasen’s “Girl Interrupted” have done for exposing life within the walls of mental hospitals. “Orange is the New Black” is an important book, one that should be required reading by all those working in the prison system. For the rest of us, it is an eye-opening, darn good, unforgettable read.
“Orange is the New Black” by Piper Kerman, Spiegel & Grau/Random House publishers. For more information: www.piperkerman.com
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