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.
“Time was a beast, a big, indolent immovable beast that wasn’t interested in my efforts at hastening it in any direction,” she writes of the strange daily rhythms of life behind bars. Later in the book, she observes, “No one who worked in ‘corrections’ appeared to give any thought to the purpose of our being there, any more than a warehouse clerk would consider the meaning of a can of tomatoes, or try to help those tomatoes understand what the hell they were doing on the shelf.”
Perkinson describes a world of gangs and rigid racial loyalties, where weakness invites predators to “turn out” inmates in a series of unfathomably violent rapes. Kerman, by contrast, explores the formation of prison “families,” complex relationships in which some women become “mothers,” others become “daughters” or “sisters.” Her book is punctuated with touching rituals: new prisoners being provided with soap, shower shoes, and other necessities by a “welcome committee” of old-timers, or mothers interacting with their children during visiting hours. Holidays like Mother’s Day, Halloween, and Thanksgiving take on huge import, opportunities to decorate the dull, institutional walls and to fantasize about lives unfettered by prison regulations. And Kerman dwells on the small joys of her incarceration, whether it’s an illicitly cooked dinner or jogging in the prison yard, the cacophony of her surroundings drowned out by her favorite radio show playing through her commissary-issued headphones.
The story of America’s modern-day experiment with mass incarceration—a process that has, over the past forty years, turned the country into the world’s busiest jailer—is overwhelmingly a saga of futility. The more people we lock up, the angrier we get when criminals continue to commit crimes. And our response seems to exemplify the old definition of madness: repeating the same thing over and over again while hoping for different results. We ramp up our criminal-justice expenditures and build more prisons. The war on drugs in particular has wasted hundreds of billions of dollars over the past decades, pursuing pointless and stunningly punitive solutions to intractable social problems.