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Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

Orange Is the New Black - Piper Kerman

A fascinating memoir of life in a federal prison camp for women. In a bout of post-college foolishness, Piper Kerman got involved with a drug trafficker. Several years later, once she’d reformed and become a responsible adult, her crime caught up with her and she was sentenced to 15 months in a minimum-security prison.

Prison is a bizarre world all its own, and for those of us fortunate enough not to have any personal experience of it, this book is a window into that world: prison conditions, jobs, bonds that form among inmates, interactions with guards, and so on. Compared to most prisons, the minimum-security camp is cushy, but there are still aspects of Piper’s experience with a nightmarish quality about them – not in a sensational way (don’t come looking for sex and violence in this book), but the complete lack of control inmates have over their lives is a scary thing.

This isn’t an op-ed book – it’s about the author’s experiences and the people she met and befriended along the way – but it certainly comments on prisons and the American criminal justice system. From ridiculous little things like the re-entry session on housing, taught by a construction guy who knows absolutely nothing about how former inmates might go about renting an apartment, to the big things like mandatory minimum sentences. Most people don’t realize that in the U.S. you’re likely to get a much longer sentence for minor involvement in drug trafficking (like letting someone store drugs in your apartment, or, as in Piper's case, smuggling drug money) than for actual violent crimes, because drugs get you into federal court and federal sentences are far longer than state ones. Once in the system, sentences depend on the total amount of drugs involved in the scheme, regardless of the individual's personal involvement. On the other hand, federal prisons are better too.

At any rate, this is a cleanly-written and very readable book, though some of the transitions are rather abrupt. The ending is abrupt too – it ends on Piper’s release, with nothing about her readjustment to life “on the street.” And yes, compared to her fellow inmates, Piper is very privileged, and she can be self-congratulatory at times. Though if she actually treats others the way she writes about them – with sympathy, humor, and admiration – her popularity makes perfect sense. And presumably she talks so much about all the people who came to visit her and all the nice things her fellow inmates said to or did for her because that stuff is crucial to someone in prison. You have to keep your dignity and self-respect somehow.

Overall, an excellent memoir that certainly kept my attention. From what I’ve heard about the show, the two have little in common. If you're curious about the world of prison and want a true story without sensationalism, this book is a great choice.