“Prison is quite literally a ghetto in the most classic sense of the word, a place where the U.S. government now puts not only the dangerous but the inconvenient—people who are mentally ill, people who are addicts, people who are poor and uneducated and unskilled.” Thus Piper Kerman, author of her memoir, Orange is the New Black, introduces her readers to the bizarre world in which this affluent blonde woman will now spend 13 months. Piper is not dangerous or inconvenient, but she is sentenced to prison for a ten-year-old drug-related offense, and through her experience we on the outside are able to examine the prison system and the people who inhabit it.
The story relies on prison lore to reel us in; Piper isn’t necessarily a motivating protagonist (being a bit of a white-bread hippie WASP with a predictably good fiancé, job and friends), but her environment is captivating, and we are able to try imagining ourselves in prison. The reason to read this novel is to see what a women’s prison is like, in memoir style. Its strongest qualities lie in the surprises we encounter as Piper wanders through prison, the people she meets, and the anecdotal evidence she acquires to confirm or rebuff our privately held fears and thoughts about what prison is “really” like.
Some of these surprises are pithy quips that seem to exist outside of any larger system of reason or institution (“Be prepared to show your ass every time,” she advises us on visiting hours). Some of these disclosures involve more insidious contexts, and the most disturbing facts of prison life we learn about involve the routine racism scattered throughout Piper’s 13 months on the inside.
Being a White woman, Piper doesn’t experience prison’s racism personally. In fact, we can easily see she’s privileged, although Kerman, annoyingly, never uses the word privilege to describe her circumstance, preferring more flaccid descriptions like “lucky” or “fortunate. “ She ascribes many of the bonuses she receives from guards and staff members to her blonde hair, or “Northern” status, the signifiers of her privilege, and yet she routinely neglects to mention her Whiteness during these situations, which is the obvious source of these windfalls. The way in which she continually shies away from using the appropriate words of “racism” and “privilege” is weak.
Kerman may do this because prison, for Piper, is a mix of sweet and sour, of fitting in and standing out, much like a particularly austere sorority house. But prison isn’t a short phase of life, and it isn’t a place where you can act as an anthropologist or sociologist for thirteen months and then walk away. Prison is a place where blonde women with nice suits get shorter sentences than brown women. It’s a place where even letting someone else use your apartment for the wrong reason can have the consequence that you help raise your child in fifteen-minute increments on the phone. It’s a world in which the worst of our society—racism, sexism, classism, lawyers who don’t care enough, judges who act with preferential treatment, a place where sad lives are made sadder—comes together in a tangible, physical assemblage, in a very real building with very real people who must live out the anti-fairytale in part because of bad decisions they’ve made and in part because not enough people care to do things like arrests and sentencings and prison support the right (and slightly more difficult, and more complex) way.
Piper does seem to understand this on a small level.
Kerman includes some items that make her seem sympathetic (she walks the reader through the absurd consequences of Mandatory Minimum Sentencing, and uses dialogue from other prisoners to explain how truly short 15 months is, and how things are when you’re in prison for a decade, or life) and some that make her seem oblivious—there are frankly offensive moments where Piper doesn’t seem to appreciate the gravity of prison.
She’s losing weight—and looking great!—due to the prison diet and physical regime, and she gets upset when she’s now receiving two subscriptions to The New Yorker, and also when her visitor’s list is full and she can’t accommodate more than 25 friends, when many prisoners don’t have their own children come to visit.
However Kerman skirts appropriate language, or seems to be unaware of the extent of her privilege at times, she does exhibit skill by not patronizing her readers. Her observations and reported statistics about prison never jump from fact to proselytizing, from statement to pontification. We’re left to puzzle these ideas ourselves, do our own research, perhaps come to our own conclusions, or simply leave these ideas dormant, to ignore them as nearly everyone on the outside seems to do. But as readers, even if we choose to ignore the problems of the Prison Industrial Complex or Mandatory Minimum Sentencing, it is difficult to forget the women of the story. This is, again, a testament to Kerman’s fledgling writing skills.
Although the memoir often employs green techniques, her characters are powerful, and she is already adept at writing dialogue. We end up mulling over the kitchen cook, the transgender woman, and the dignified bunkmate after the novel ends. These women have undecided fates; we can assume that Piper leaves prison and goes home to her devoted fiancé and her earmarked employment. The other women, who might go home to a grudging family, a life of backwards glances, or a skillset that is confined to prison jobs are remarkable and touching. Orange is clearly about the people involved. And so, even when Piper overlooks her privilege, even when the writing reads as unsophisticated, the novel is a success.
The women who share Piper’s prison are remembered and celebrated. The hero of Orange is not the protagonist. The heroes of Orange are the women who persist under grim circumstances outside of prison and who continue to use their fortitude, wits, and hearts when they lose everything else, including their freedom. Orange is the New Black is a humane novel that shows us the love that can expand beyond hard perimeters and hard time.