More than once I’ve declared on this blog that I can’t resist a good prison memoir. That being the case, how could I resist reading Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison after hearing so many good things about the Netflix series it’s inspired? Let’s just say when I stumbled across Piper Kerman’s 2010 memoir during one of my weekend library visits I grabbed it without a second thought. Good thing I did because after finishing it the other night I was not disappointed.
Since many of you are already familiar with the story of Kerman’s incarceration I wont recall a lot of the details. After pleading guilty to charges associated with her relatively brief and minor role in an international drug smuggling operation, she was sentenced to 15 months in a federal women’s prison. After all the plea bargaining, sentencing delays and bureaucratic BS lasting the better part of a decade she finally surrendered herself to a US federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut. While in prison the upper middle class Smith College graduate rubbed elbows with memorable and intriguing cast of rogues ranging from transgender divas to political dissident nuns. But by and large, most of her fellow prisoners were poor and/or working class women of color, with the bulk of them serving sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.
I’ve always been skeptical whenever I heard calls to radically reform or even abolish the so-called drug war. Until I read Kerman’s memoir. With so many of Kerman’s fellow prisoners serving out their drug-related convictions because their respective communities lack few, if any legal avenues to make a living, one wonders if there’s a better way to run the country. If we as a nation spent as much money strengthening these disadvantaged communities through workforce training, subsidized childcare, drug and alcohol treatment and job creation as we do incarcerating their their members I doubt we’d have such a prison problem in America.
I enjoyed reading Orange is the New Black and judging by the many positive comments it’s generated around the blogosphere I’m not alone. If, after reading it you’d like to read other quality prison memoirs there’s several I’d recommend. Avi Steinberg’s memoir Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, is quite good as is Ted Conover’s memoir Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing. Lastly, if you ever wanted to know what it’s like to be an American in a South Korean prison you can’t go wrong with Cullen Thomas’s Brother One Cell: An American Coming of Age in South Korea’s Prisons. All three memoirs are definitely worth your time.