Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison

            When Orange is the New Black made its Netflix debut in 2013, audiences came out in droves. The show has alluring dramatic features like lesbianism, violence, infidelity, and drugs, all with a comedic twist. In fact, the program is Netflix’s most watched homegrown show to date. Of course, behind every great film/television show, there’s usually a great book—and this one is no exception. It helps that my favorite character from the show happens to enjoy literature as much as I do: 

            In 2010, Piper Kerman published her memoir Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Woman’s Prison*, which details her imprisonment in 2005. Like most of my peers, I have a problem with the criminal justice system…but I do virtually nothing to help change its trajectory because I’m not personally affected by it. It disgusts me that the U.S. comprises only 5% of the world’s population, yet we house 25% of the world’s prisoners. It disgusts me that the so-called “War on Drugs” has quadrupled the number of incarcerations since 1980 without effectively addressing the root problem. It disgusts me that the current system disproportionally affects African Americans and unabashedly screws over people in poverty. Get over yourself, government. Here’s a colorful info-graphic to check out if you don’t already share my disgust: Colorful Info-Graphic

            I appreciate that Piper recognized these appalling trends and used her circumstances to speak out against them. Unlike her fellow prisoners, Piper was extraordinarily lucky to have a heavily involved support system with financial means and upstanding legal counsel. During her incarceration, a friend started the website to help coordinate visits, encourage letters/packages, and express dissatisfaction and solidarity against the system. Additionally, her friend who owned a start-up company created a marketing position specifically for her upon her release. In the camp, Piper saw that most prisoners experienced the exact opposite. She accurately notes that prison is a place where, “The US government now puts not only the dangerous but also the inconvenient—people who are mentally ill, people who are addicts, people who are poor and uneducated and unskilled” (Kerman, 200). She had resources to keep her afloat during her stint and to help her when she got out, while many of her fellow inmates went straight to homeless shelters.

One particularly distributing story encapsulates how little the government gives a shit. Before release, prisoners attend a “training day” intended to assist in the transition from jail to freedom. At the “Housing” seminar, a correction officer babbled on about the necessity of good insulation in a home. One prisoner expressed that her primary concern wasn’t roof paneling but finding affordable housing that would accept ex-cons. The officer’s response? “‘The best way to find an apartment is in the paper, or there are websites now that you can search’” (Kerman, 251). Ooooh *websites*. Insightful. Keep in mind that this occurred in 2005--some of the prisoners had been inside for so long that they’d never seen a computer.

            Although prison is undoubtedly a horrific experience, Piper seemed to make the most of it and flourish within the walls. For instance, she ended up getting a bangin bod by running 30 miles a week at roughly a 7 minute pace. On the weekend of the New York City marathon, she casually ran her own half marathon on the prison tracks. Clearly, the only thing stopping me from performing like an Olympic athlete is my own freedom.
            Not only was her physique transformed, but her psyche was as well. She discovered her own kind of restorative justice, “in which an offender confronts the damage they have done and tries to make it right to the people they have harmed” (Kerman, 180). Piper was indicted for a bullshit ten-year-old drug charge, and in prison she confronted the kinds of people affected by her participation in heroin dealing. Post-college, she lived a brief life of experimentation with her exotic, drug-peddling girlfriend, Nora. Although she was aware of Nora’s antics, she was largely uninvolved. When Nora’s dealing became a huge stress on their relationship, Piper bailed, shed herself of her past, and embarked on a new, law-abiding life. When Nora’s enterprise fell apart years later, Piper’s past caught up with her. It would have been easy for her to deny her wrongdoings and emphasize how little she resembled the previous Piper; instead, she fully admitted her mistakes and lamented that she had played a part (however small) in providing a devastating drug to the community. Prison sucked, but it made her a better person by forcing her to confront her missteps.

And now… what we’re all waiting for…how is the show different from the book? Piper Kerman was a beloved inmate who learned from prison but was not hardened or crushed by it. Piper Chapman—the show’s version of Pipes—is a narcissistic bitch. The memoir provides the bare-minimum backbone for the story: an unsuspecting middle-class white woman gets thrown into jail and interacts with people of different backgrounds from her. The show heavily extrapolates on that framework, focusing on the eccentricities of each character and (in later seasons) minimizing Piper’s involvement in favor of focusing on, frankly, more interesting people.
Additionally, Piper Chapman—unlike Piper Kerman-- toes the line between being “gay for the stay” and fully embracing her lesbian side. She is engaged to her fiancé, Larry, but the relationship is turbulent due to her wandering eye for women. I’ve been on the straight and narrow sexual path my whole life, but I do know a mediocre Sapphic joke: *Why was the lesbian sick? Because she wasn’t getting enough vitamin D*.

The biggest discrepancy is her ex-girlfriend’s involvement. The show’s juiciest drama revolves around the dual presence of Piper and “Alex” (Netflix’s version of Nora) within the prison. Naturally, being around her long-gone ex who got her into this whole mess in the first place is problematic for Piper. But, this addition is not factual; in her memoir, Piper Kerman explains that she spent only a short time in the same transition-camp as her ex because they were co-defenders traveling to a trial for one of the drug kingpins they had both worked under. This interaction was unpleasant, but it was not the crux of Piper’s experience in jail.

Personally, I’ve been a fan of the show since the start. I binge-watched the entire first season while sick in bed the summer after I graduated from college-- I have fond memories of downing liquid Dayquil (I can’t swallow pills very well, lawlz) while Piper Chapman wept onscreen. I give the first season 3 out of 5 camel humps (I was tired of hearing about Piper’s overwrought trials) and the following two seasons 5 out of 5 camel humps (entertaining and enlightening about what it was like on the inside). The book falls in a cozy place in between, at 4 out of 5 camel humps. I love how Piper weaved cogent explanations of how the system had failed her friends AND presented an entertaining story about something most of us will (thankfully) never undergo. At the same time, it wasn’t the most impressive writing I’ve ever read, and I was often confused by her vague transitions—it seemed that her stories weren’t as fluid as she had expected and she’d jump from one topic to another too abruptly. Thus, I recommend for readers who want perspective on a pressing domestic issue through the lens of comedy and relative lightheartedness.

* Kerman, Piper. Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison. New York: Random House, Inc., 2010. Print.

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