I know that the fifth season of Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison is coming out on Netflix. Perhaps it is already out in a pirated version? Either way, I am not watching it! I looked at Season One the same time I was reading the book and concluded that Piper Kerman’s Orange is the New Black book is a masterpiece of a memoir. However, the TV series, though somewhat entertaining, is much removed from the warmth and genuineness revealed by the author on the black and white pages. I did note from watching the series, that Kerman is also its Executive Producer. I don’t blame the author for allowing the show to veer much off of the course of real events she described in the book. After all, it has been popular enough to last five seasons, and very lucrative to the author. Kerman deserves all the money and fame she can collect. She suffered almost 10 years of anguish after her sentencing before she served her time, and earned only pennies an hour while in prison. You may be excited by all the spectacular sex scenes and violence of the Netflix show if you care to, but if you would like to gain deep insights about what it is really like in a women’s prison, then I can’t think of any source that will give you the inside scoop better than Kerman’s book.
Initially I objected to her claim that you can’t ever understand what prison life is like unless you have been on the inside as an inmate! My disbelief was related to the fact that I was a state administrator of educational programs in prisons for over 20 years with the Virginia Department of Correctional Education (DCE). Though I believe that the services we offered in DCE were substantially better than those offered in the Connecticut federal prison that Kerman served in, I was only looking at those programs from the outside looking in. However, after reading Kerman’s take on the “educational services” she received, I feel like I had only been on a tourist visa, where Piper was a highly qualified tourist guide.
Kerman successfully avoided the pitfalls of many prison diarists. She did not complain about her tough situations as much as describing them with a keen detached journalistic eye. Like in the last prison book I reviewed on this site, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, Kerman writes like a prisoner who was an observer looking at herself. She reported the sometimes sad, sometimes moving, and sometimes hilarious experiences she had in a way that the reader feels as if he or she was a friend, sister, brother, or lover sending them her intimate reports.Once I getting involved in the book, you might also feel that you were its captive. In actuality, she did write a lot to her fiancé and received regular visit from him from the beginning to the end of her sentence.
After spending several chapters about how she got mixed up with a lesbian lover and an international drug ring, she guided us right inside the intake process. She was strip-searched and made to cough while bending forward while naked to make sure that she was not carrying in any drugs or other contraband.She had to repeat this process hundreds of times in the year – every time a visitor came and left. She was not allowed to do anything meaningful in the first month until all of her paperwork was processed. Her days at the beginning and end of her sentence (when she was waiting for release) were full of playing rummy, spades, and boredom. The only access she had to work was when she was called upon to shovel snow in frigid conditions in the middle of the night, and then denied sleep time and food because she of the work. Kerman reported that a frail 70-year-old women was also called upon to shovel the deep snow, but couldn’t; so she had to help. Such details almost remind us of the type of cruelties endured by Frankl in the concentration camps.
In going through the orientation process, the prisoner noted that there were only two types of staff styles: “condescending and apologetic.” The psychiatrist, she noted, fell in the later group. He said that he “could not really supply any mental health services, he was only there for an emergency.” His purpose “was to dole out psychiatric medicines if you wanted to be sedated.” The warden, who fell in the condescending category, informed the inmates that “the buck stops here,” and that there wouldn’t be any tolerance of sexual or other abuse. She insisted that if anyone was subjected to any unwanted advances by staff or other inmates, they should come to see her immediately. This sounded good to Piper until other inmates informed her that anyone who had reported such abuses were sent to the segregation units and lost their jobs and privileges pending the investigation. She ultimately concluded that the power balance was so weighted against inmates, that they had almost no chance to win in a dispute against prison officials. She also found that when guards were found guilty of the abuses, they often received no consequences.
Piper reported that the racism in prison was “unabashed.” Prisoners were generally assigned to the cells they lived in according to their race. There was the Suburbs for Whites; the Ghettos for Blacks; and Spanish Harlem for Hispanics. She said that about 50% of the prison population was White; 25% Black; and 25% Hispanic. Despite her first assignment to her own racial group in the Suburbs, she managed to get it changed to rooming in a mixed Spanish Harlem and Blacks group with a long-term, no-nonsense and wise women from the Caribbean Islands, named “Natalie.” The memoir followed Natalie more closely than any other associates, although many other interactions and personalities were described. Natalie advised Piper to learn to “do the time and not to let the time do you.” Another long-term inmate, Pop, counselled Piper on how to stay out of trouble and serve time with dignity.
After about a month, Piper was deemed eligible for a prison job. The jobs that were possible included: construction and maintenance services (CMS), electrical services, kitchen, prison industries, laundry, seeing-eye dog training, and educational aides. As a graduate of the highly prestigious Smith College, she volunteered to be an assistant in the GED classes, but she was assigned to work in CMS and electrical services. It’s a good thing she didn’t get assigned to the educational wing because it was shut down during a good part of her stay due to mold and asbestos in the ceiling. Consequently, there were few books available to the inmates, unless they were received the from home. Fortunately, Piper received many books while she was incarcerated and shared them generously with her friends.
When she reported to her CMS job, the other inmate workers said that there was sometimes something to do and sometimes not. Eventually, the foreman of the crew showed up with a big book on electrical circuits and repairs,and asked Piper, who had no experience in this field, if she could read, He informed her that she was to read the book and teach the other women in the class, who were mostly illiterate, about how to repair the many electrical items throughout the prison that were not functioning properly. Occasionally, the teacher would pop a VHS tape in the machine on electrical theory and disappear for the rest of the day. Rather than complaining about this unrealistic assignment, she took it as a challenge and succeeded in learning and teaching others about various trades. Her willingness to share her skills with other inmates changed many of their opinions of her. As she was able to help fix circuits, fans, TV’s, and other electrical appliances in their cells, the women changed their frowns, toward Piper, to smiles. As a college graduate, some women also asked Piper to write appeals, parole request letters, and even college papers for them. She complied to each request, even the unreasonable ones. She learned the same thing in an American prison that Viktor Frankl did in a Nazi Concentration Camp: Only those prisoners who found a sense of purpose while they were incarcerated survived well. Serving others also helped her to have so much self-confidence that her family could not understand why she adjusted so well. One of the other factors that helped her to do so well, was that she had learned to accept responsibility for the crimes she committed instead of blaming others, as she had done at first.
Near the end of her term, she received the mandatory pre-release counselling from federal workers who were apparently imported for the job. They informed the women that it is important that they find a good job after they were released so they would not need to be re-incarcerated. That was the essence of the training. During the Q and A session afterwards, the woman asked: How they could get a job without the needed skills? How could find the open jobs? And, how they should address questions during interviews about their former incarcerations? Kerman reported that the workers did not even attempt to give those answers. Instead, they suggested that the inmates look those questions up on computers in their library. When the women pointed out there was not much of a library, let alone any computers, the trainers appeared to be shocked, claiming that “they would look into the matter.” I was shocked by the scarcity of educational or rehabilitative services that Kerman received in prison. But, I was grateful to learn that the most valuable experiences that she did receive was that she was exposed to diverse groups that she didn’t normally interact with. In order to be ready to leave prison, she also needed to learn to accept responsibility for what she did to earn prison time, and to understand that to succeed in life after prison, she needed to find a new purpose.
Piper Kerman was not one of those women who needed proper transitional counselling during her year in prison. She had the benefits of an advanced education and a friend who had a good job waiting for as soon as soon as she was released. She also had family support on the outside, which was not available to a majority of the women. She acknowledged that she had thrived in prison because she learned the most “from the women she had the least in common with.” As for the prison staff or rehabilitative workers, she concluded that no one appeared to have given any thought about what the purpose of prison was, or how services could have been organized to help the women be ready to re-enter society. She asked, “What is the point of locking away people for years without offering any help? How can prisoners understand that their terms served were worthwhile when it was delivered so indifferently?” Unfortunately, she concluded that many women left prison in worse shape than when they entered it. I wonder if Kerman ever tried to contact or help some of the women who helped her in prison? Perhaps that might be a topic of the book’s sequel?
We needn’t worry about Piper. After her release, she went on to marry her loyal fiancé, took a good job, wrote the best-selling book, Orange is the New Black, produced the Emmy-winning TV show loosely based on her memoir, and still supports various worthy organizations that advocate for criminal justice reforms.
Dr. Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education from Temple University (1973), a Master’s Degree of Arts in English Literature from Virginia Commonwealth University (2015), and a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech (1988). He is married and has three adult daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. He is the founder and chief editor of this literary blog and is an editor for the International Correctional Education Journal. He is the Co-Editor of the 2016 book of poetry, Mystic Verses, by Shambhushivananda. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and Facilities Planning Committee Coordinator for the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. He teaches literature classes at the OSHER, Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Richmond; is the organizer and coordinator of The First Fridays Classic Book Club; and is co-organizer, along with Rebecca Elizabeth Jones, of the VCU Working Titles Book Club. Contact Murray at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a note at the bottom of the post.