Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison

Image of Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison
Release Date: 
March 7, 2011
Spiegel & Grau
Reviewed by: 

“Cancel my subscription to the resurrection/
Send my credentials to the house of detention/
I got some friends inside.”
—The Doors (“When the Music’s Over”)

“This was the penitence that sometimes happens
in the penitentiary.”
—Piper Kerman

Orange Is the New Black is the primarily angry, but eventually calming memoir from Piper Kerman, a young woman who was locked up for more than a year in the Danbury federal correctional facility. Her case is somewhat unique not only because she is white and raised middle-class, but because she also had a decade-long wait between her arrest on drug charges and her incarceration. Kerman had ten years to wonder whether she was going to be behind the bars in a so-called Club Fed or a type of nightmarish facility where her personal safety would be at risk among hardcore offenders.

When Kerman is sentenced to serve her relatively short 15-month term in Danbury, she has found a boyfriend in New York City and is leading a stable life. Being forced to leave this behind results in this true story that begins with a lot of hostility expressed in words that begin with “f” and “s”; they appear on about every other page. This reviewer was surprised that an editor had not elected to remove the terms, which became repetitive and annoying.

Early on, Kerman also expresses anger at the federal prosecutors who tried one of her fellow inmates: “I wondered what U.S. attorney was enjoying that particular notch in her or her belt.” This appears to be the opposite of blaming the victim. Instead of blaming herself or her fellow inmates for their crimes, Kerman attempts to label the criminal justice system’s officials as evil. It just does not work. As they say, if you can’t do the time then don’t do the crime.

After some months are spent at Danbury, Kerman comes to find that she has a second family among the group of women she encounters and resides with. This results in her continuing her memoir in a calmer voice. . . . We can literally feel the calmness and acceptance that attaches to her story. This is when she talks of penitence and accepting the harm she has caused to her future husband and family members and friends. It is also when she sees that she has true friends who stick by her when the going gets tough.

Kerman begins to so highly value her fellow inmates that when any one of them is released, it becomes more a time of sorrow and regret than elation. This reminds this reviewer of another flaw with the editing of Orange. Each time that Kerman writes of the departure of another inmate, the reader is reminded that the departing inmate’s prison effects will be distributed to those left behind. This point is raised too many times, although we see that Kerman looks forward to giving away her own prison garb and possessions when she leaves.

In the end, a painful tale of incarceration winds up as a positive story of self-acceptance. Kerman cannot change what she did as a reckless youth—one without the best of judgment— seeking excitement. But in prison she comes to see that she can and will value her life from this point forward. Upon her release, she runs toward the future, “No one can stop me.”

The journey that Piper Kerman takes the reader on in this memoir is at times a rocky one on a winding road, but the destination makes the journey worthwhile. Well done.