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

orange-is-the-new-black.PNGBook Title: Orange is the New Black – My Year in a Women’s Prison
Author: Piper Kerman
Style: Chapter Book
Target Audience: Adults
Genres: Non-fiction, sociology, memoir
Page Count: 327
Reading time: 11.5 hours
Format: Audiobook (library) read by Cassandra Campbell

My impressions: Wow. I love the Netflix series Orange is the New Black, and I knew it was based on a book about Piper Kerman’s real-life experiences. What I didn’t expect is that I’d actually like the book equally as well as the TV series or that the book would keep my interest so strongly after seeing the dramatization.

I should first mention that aside from the cursory details and some common names and themes, there’s actually surprisingly little overlap between the narrative told in Orange is the New Black – My Year in a Women’s Prison and the Netflix show. It’s clear that the showrunners and writers pulled a lot of details to from Piper Kerman’s experiences to craft their original characters and setting, but the TV show is very much its own thing. In many ways, this memoir was like reading The Star Wars a few days ago – it has a lot in common with what popular culture already knows and loves, but it also has characters with different names or familiar-sounding details that show up in very different contexts. Of course, this time it’s because the source material is actually relating a true story, while the TV show plays up the more salacious aspects of prison life.

I experienced this story as an audiobook, and reader Cassandra Campbell works hard to bring characters to life. She gives Piper’s narrative a neutral tone and ensures that each of Piper’s fellow prisoners have warm, memorable personalities, but she also conveys the considerable empathy of the story. The Danbury minimum correctional facility is an interesting place, and it’s populated by a colorful rotation of characters. But what makes this story so different from the show is that this Piper is not caught up in the drama. She forms warm bonds with these women and tells their stories of living in prison. She doesn’t focus much on their backstories or their exploits; she instead relays their humanity and their hopes and dreams of getting back to their families and trying to make lives for themselves despite the many formidable obstacles the American criminal justice system and cultural segregation place in their way. Unlike the Piper in the show, who becomes cut off from the outside world, Piper Kerman maintains strong relationships with her fiance, friends and family, and she constantly notes how lucky she is to have their support when so many of the women she encounters have little to none (a problem that becomes greater proportional to the length of one’s sentence).

If you’ve enjoyed the show, you should read the book; it’s interesting to see what truly happens in a women’s prison, and the visuals of the show will give you a frame of reference. The book also argues for needed reforms to the justice system, and occasionally references social science and government research to make its points, in many ways providing a valuable ethnographic perspective on what doesn’t work about our criminal justice system.

My only caution is that you shouldn’t expect all of the sex, violence, drama and tension of the show here; that stuff is invented by writers and showrunners to keep you watching, and while some of it’s likely based on research, it’s clearly not representative of what Piper Kerman experienced in her year at Danbury.

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