Piper Kerman’s beautifully written Orange Is the New Black is destined to become a classic in this genre. In its introspective tone, it is more similar to South African anti-apartheid activist Albie Sachs’s Jail Diary than it is to, say, Mumia Abu-Jamal’s denunciatory communiqués from Pennsylvania’s death row. From time to time she does lambast The Man, mocking the absurdities of current incarceration practices and the politics behind them. Yet the bulk of Kerman’s narrative is a journey of self-discovery, describing how one can find one’s true strengths during moments of adversity. It is akin to the great blues songs, written by Lead Belly and other prisoner-troubadours, which Perkinson quotes so admiringly in his work on Texas.
As a young woman fresh out of Smith College, Kerman got marginally involved with an international drug-smuggling ring. For a few months, she couriered bags of dirty money around the world. Then, disillusioned with the lifestyle, and increasingly aware of the insane risks she was taking, she cut off her connections with the underworld. Ten years later, her old crimes caught up with her. She was indicted, accepted a plea deal (very capably negotiated by her private attorney), and was sentenced to fifteen months in a women’s federal prison.
Kerman is a rarity among the hundreds of thousands of men and women living out their youth and middle age behind bars for playing supporting roles in the epic drama that is the modern-day drug trade. She was white, educated, affluent, with a strong support structure out in the free world. Her felony conviction was unlikely to block the way to further employment opportunities after her release. But inside Danbury, the low-security prison in Connecticut to which she was sent, she became a number like every other prisoner: 11187-424.
Part of what makes the book so readable is the fact that Kerman isn’t consumed with self-pity. Nor does she stress how different she was from the other inmates. In fact, she notes gleefully that there were certain improbable similarities between the privileged, all-female environment of a liberal arts college and that of a women’s prison.
“There was less bulimia and more fights than I had known as an undergrad,” she recalls, “but the same feminine ethos was present—empathetic camaraderie and bawdy humor on good days, and histrionic dramas coupled with meddling, malicious gossip on bad days.”
Where Perkinson has the outside observer’s eye for macro detail (sometimes in overwhelming quantities), Kerman takes readers through her own bizarre, depressing, sometimes hilarious, and deeply touching interactions within the federal prison system. It’s an interesting companion work to The Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell, penned by former bank robber Joe Loya, and to Ted Conover’s Newjack, the chronicles of an undercover journalist working as a correctional officer in Sing Sing.
The juxtaposition between Texas Tough and Orange Is the New Black is fascinating, and makes them well worth reading together. Perkinson writes mainly about male prisoners, and the closer he gets to the contemporary era, the more he focuses on the abysmal conditions in high-security facilities. Kerman focuses on female prisoners—a population often ignored in recent prison literature, with notable exceptions being Silja Talvi’s Women Behind Bars and Jennifer Gonnerman’s Life on the Outside. And she writes about low-security inmates, who occupy a whole different (if still debilitating) universe.
In contrast to Perkinson’s litany of horrors, Kerman details a world where boredom, or the inability to laugh at the unintentionally absurd, is a more pervasive threat to one’s integrity than being shanked on the way to chow hall or raped in the showers. Orange Is the New Black documents the author’s attempts to preserve her individuality in the face of a gray, impersonal bureaucracy—one based around prisoner counts, strip searches, rules governing the minutiae of life, and continual reminders that prisoners, by definition, have no power, no real autonomy.