Thursday, May 31, 2012

Thoughts on ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK by Piper Kerman

I have just reread ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK: MY YEAR IN A WOMEN'S PRISON by Piper Kerman, published in 2011. This is a memoir about exactly what the subtitle says: a year spent in prison by Piper due to a drug-related conviction. Piper's memoir is note-worthy because she not only tells her story but also reflects on the larger social implications of the ways that prisons and the criminal justice system function.


Piper grew up in the northeast, graduated from Smith, and fulfilled her parents' expectations for someone of her social class. After college graduation, Piper was ready for some less conventional adventures. She became friends with a woman in her thirties who was involved in international drug trafficking. Piper traveled around the world with this woman and even on one occasion transported drug money (though not drugs themselves) across international borders.

After this money-transporting adventure, Piper realized that she needed to extricate herself from this dangerous friendship. She moved to the West Coast, got a job, developed a circle of good friends, and found a steady boyfriend, with whom she eventually moved to New York when he took a position with a magazine there. Soon, Piper's boyfriend (Larry Smith) became her fiancé.

Five years had passed since Piper's drug-related transgression. She had put all drug-related involvement behind her, she was now an upstanding contributing member of society, she was looking forward to marriage with Larry - and one day federal marshals came knocking on her door to tell her that she was being indicted for drug-related criminal activity. Piper had to break the news to Larry, to her parents, and to her friends that she would probably go to prison.

Because Piper had the means to hire a top-notch attorney, she was able to plead guilty in exchange for a light sentence of 15 months, of which she served 13 months and was released early on good behavior. Piper served her time at the minimum security federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut.


Piper found prison life to be restrictive, humiliating, and sometimes terrifying. The prisoners had to stand at attention to be counted several times during the day and night. To receive visitors, prisoners had to submit to strip searches. And it was always clear that the guards had absolute power, including the power to deprive a prisoner of privileges, to take away a prisoner's good time earned, and to cast a prisoner into solitary confinement.

At the same time, the women in this minimum security prison supported each other. Some women were untrustworthy, but many showed kindness. When a new prisoner arrived, the experienced prisoners offered words of encouragement and helped the new arrival by supplying personal items until the new woman's paperwork went through and she could buy items herself from the prison commissary. Piper actually felt that she developed a circle of friends in prison.

The women imprisoned with Piper included a woman whom Piper calls Yoga Janet, who was calm and centered and who taught yoga classes for the other prisoners, as well as a Catholic nun named Sister Ardeth Platte, who was in prison for civil disobedience to protest the United States' military build-up.


Piper looks squarely at the social implications of the war on drugs, which took off in earnest in the 1980s, when mandatory minimum prison sentences were put in place. This mandatory sentencing means that judges are not allowed to use their discretion in sentencing but must impose at least the mandatory minimum sentence.

As a result, record numbers of people are now imprisoned with long sentences due to tangential involvement with drug-related activity. Piper encountered a woman in her seventies from the Dominican Republic serving a four-year sentence for passing on drug-related telephone messages for a male relative. Some of the women in prison with Piper were doing sentences of five, ten, fifteen, or twenty years for non-violent offenses. If these women had children (and many did), those children were growing up without their mothers.

Piper also says that what made her realize the full implications of the harm she had done with her drug-related activity was to see the results of drug addiction in the ravaged lives of her fellow inmates. Piper realized that, in transporting drug money across international borders, she had been supporting drug addiction - and in prison she was confronted with the human cost of such drug addiction. The money she had transported came from the sale of drugs that ultimately went to addicts, who suffered greatly from their addiction and caused their families great suffering.

Piper believes, therefore, that the most effective deterrent to crime is to have the criminal confront the human consequences of his or her criminal activity. (This won't work with a sociopath, of course, but it will work with many criminals who simply haven't considered the harm they have done to others by their criminal actions.) Piper sees restorative justice as the way to go - having a criminal confront the suffering caused by his or her crimes and then make restitution.

Piper also saw the huge need for programs to prepare prisoners for the outside world before releasing them. Prison life, Piper says, teaches people how to survive in prison but does nothing to prepare them to live on the outside, where a whole different skill set is necessary. Piper saw the deep anxiety in fellow prisoners with a release date coming up. Some women had nowhere to go and no one to go to. These women were preparing to check in at the nearest homeless shelter. It is very hard to see how these women could be expected to find work and become contributing members of society when all they could hope for upon release was to get into a homeless shelter.


Piper Kerman is a woman of strong determination who was able to go beyond survival in prison by learning to enjoy small pleasures, by giving and receiving support with her fellow prisoners, by closely observing and analyzing the interactions of prison, and of course by receiving the love and support of her family and friends and by having the means to hire a top-notch attorney. Piper is very aware that her upbringing and social class gave her privileges that many other prisoners lacked. For example, Piper had no worries about post-prison employment. A friend had created a position for her in his company that she could move into immediately upon release; the position also came with full health insurance benefits.

Piper's memoir reminds us of the plight of women prisoners, especially those serving long sentences for non-violent offenses. Piper highlights the harm done by separating women from their children and tearing families apart and the uselessness of long mandatory prison sentences for tangential drug-related offenses.

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