Orange is the New Black

Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison graduated from Smith College in the early 1990s. Always a free spirit, she moved in with an older woman who seemed to have it all — a beautiful apartment, clothes and fabulous trips. She soon discovered that her friend was a drug runner and Piper began to carry suitcases full of money to Europe for the same West African drug lord. After a very brief period, she put these illegal activities behind her and found a boyfriend. They moved to New York and Piper settled into a career as a freelance producer. She lived the life of a typical college graduate until the F.B.I. eventually knocked on her door to tell her she was implicated in a large smuggling group. Soon after, she was indicted for drug trafficking and money laundering.

Ms. Kerman writes about confessing to her shocked boyfriend and family and then waiting years for her trial to take place. Almost ten years after her brief but serious interlude with breaking the law, she pled guilty and was convicted of drug smuggling and money laundering. She was remanded to the Danbury Federal Correctional Institution, a women’s prison in Danbury, CT., to serve a fifteen month sentence.

Kerman managed to navigate the prison system, successfully serve out her sentence and forge unexpected friendships with some prisoners she would likely have never met on the outside. She soon found that incarceration was more punitive than rehabilitative and developed a great empathy for many of her fellow inmates. Her original perspectives on the prison system, the inequities and rampant inefficiencies as well as her experiences with prisoner and staff relationships show an enlightening side to women’s incarceration. She adapted as well as she could but realized that because she was a blonde, blue eyed, educated young woman, there were occasions where she was not treated as harshly as some of her fellow inmates.

This eye opening story has both poignant and humorous moments. As you read about Piper eating a foie gras sandwich while sitting in the prison lobby with her boyfriend (by then her fiance) waiting to surrender to authorities, it’s clear that you are in for an unusual read.

For a different point of view, pick up Jennifer Gonnerman’s Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett which tells the story of poor African American Elaine Bartlett.  Bartlett was sentenced to sixteen years in prison for a single sale of cocaine. While living in prison is never easy, there is definitely a glaring contrast between these two women and their experiences.

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