For those of us obsessed with the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, the third season has us gobbling up new episodes. It seems like a good time for a book report on the original memoir of the same name, Piper Kerman’s account of the year she spent in a minimum security federal prison, for a drug trafficking offense. Whether or not you enjoy the series, the book is a great read. Not surprisingly, the Netflix version diverges from reality in many ways, so you won’t spoil the suspense whether you read the book or see the series first.
As in the series, Kerman falls under the erotic spell of an older woman, “Nora,” and agrees to a single act of money smuggling before she wakes up and splits. Years later, but just before the statute of limitations kicks in, she is arrested, and pleads guilty to money laundering to avoid being charged with conspiracy. On the charge she pleads to, her sentence could be up to 30 months. But rather than sentencing her, sending her to prison and letting her get it over with, the feds keep her hanging for the next six years, during which she can’t leave the country, must report monthly, and doesn’t know when she will be sentenced and how long her sentence will be. (Ironically, the drug kingpin for whom Nora was working was never indicted.) By the time she reported to Danbury prison (the real “Litchfield”) her crime was eleven years in the past.
Of course, one expects a TV drama to ramp up the sex and violence. But it’s a shame that Piper and her fiancé, Larry, are depicted as such immature, directionless people, when in reality they were emotional grown-ups with solid careers. And why must every member of Piper and Larry’s families be either crazy or clueless? As a mother myself, I am happy to report that Piper’s real mother visited her every single week, a six-hour roundtrip drive, and that Larry’s family was equally supportive.
Piper’s lawyer and her prison counselor each tell her: Don’t make friends there. Fortunately, she ignores them. The racial tension that bubbles up regularly in the series was in reality more an informal organization along “tribal” lines, without hostility. Each new inmate was befriended by others from her “tribe,” who showed her the ropes and set her up with necessities until she could shop at commissary. “I wanted to bawl every time another lady brought me a personal care item and reassured me, ‘It’ll be okay, Kerman.’” People without tribes, e.g. Native Americans or Asians, got “a patchwork welcome committee of the kindest and most compassionate women from the dominant tribes.”
One of the best features of the series is the back stories of Piper’s fellow inmates. There is little of that in the book, perhaps out of respect for their privacy. What we have instead is a story reminiscent of the various WWII POW movies, such as Stalag 17 or The Bridge Over the River Kwai. A motley crew of prisoners bands together and creates an internal hierarchy to keep their spirits up and their psyches whole in the face of a cruel bureaucracy. Despite their meager resources, birthdays and getting-out days are assiduously celebrated. Piper describes the truly amazing surprise birthday party engineered for her in prison, featuring ingenious and creative contraband recipes: chilaquiles, enchilada, cheesecake. She was presented with a huge birthday card. “Jae slipped me her own handmade card…What she said in that card was echoed by the notes the others had written in the group card: ‘I never thought I would find a friend like you here.’”
The memoir drives home a point that the series glides over lightly: the very real damage done by heroin, and the necessity for Piper to comes to terms with her own complicity in that evil. Kerman acknowledges that without the prison experience she probably would never have understood that. My son and I have had an ongoing argument about Piper’s character in the series. I have been a loyal defender, although I must say that the third season has tried my faith. So it’s good to know that for the real Piper, who mentored and helped younger women, the most important thing she learned in prison was that she was a good person. “If there was one thing that I had learned in the Camp, it was that I was in fact good. I wasn’t so good with chickenshit rules, but I was more than capable of helping other people. I was eager to offer what I had, which was more than I had realized….Best of all, I had found other women here in prison who could teach me how to do better.”
Piper’s prison career ends with a tour of federal holding bins, when she is shipped off to Chicago to testify in the case of a drug dealer. As she spends day after day in the Chicago prison, keeping sane by doing yoga, she worries that her end date will come and the system won’t turn her loose or that Larry won’t know where to find her. When the announcement comes, “Kerman, pack out!” she (and we) are relieved, but also sad. Piper was denied the chance to say goodbye, her friends in Danbury didn’t get to give her a party. For a moment, the ties of prison friendships almost compete with friends and family at home. And then, as she writes, “I was running, as fast as I could. No one could stop me.”