Thursday, April 5, 2018

Book 123: Orange Is The New Black

"It was a weird place, the all-female society with a handful of strange men, the military-style living, the predominant 'ghetto' vibe (both urban and rural) through a female lens, the mix of every age, from silly young girls to old grandmas, all thrown together with varying levels of tolerance. Crazy concentrations of people inspire crazy behavior."

Dates read: February 2-6, 2017

Rating: 7/10

My mother is a pharmacist, but she was also a single parent to my sister and I. Most retail pharmacy jobs require nights and weekends, which were a no-go, so she worked for the State. Which meant working mostly in prisons and psychiatric facilities. Pharmacists have relatively little interaction with the prisoner population, but she still had interesting stories about what it was like to work on the inside. Now that I'm an adult, I can't imagine how weird it must have been to go to jail every day, Monday through Friday, as her job.

But of course, there's a world of difference between working at a prison and living inside of one. Piper Kerman's memoir, Orange Is The New Black, chronicles the latter: just about a year of doing time at a minimum security women's prison in New England. This book was the basis of the Netflix show of the same name, but it's a very different piece of media. Like any memoir, it's rooted in the author's personal experience. So while many of the characters, and even some of the incidents, will be familiar to those who watch the show, the book is really all about Piper.

Which, for me at least, worked just fine. She doesn't spend much time dwelling on her crime, but rather focuses her attention on what it actually means to be a prisoner. What comes through the most strongly is the dehumanization, going from being a person with autonomy to a number at the mercy of the system. There's virtually no privacy, there are strip searches required for every visit with someone from the outside world, the smallest concessions are subject to the capricious whims of prison officials. While many of the women are due to be released relatively soon, there's no meaningful rehabilitation or real preparation to be re-integrated into the outside world.

It really makes you think about what the point of prison actually is. Kerman's case, in particular, was a crime that was nearly a decade behind her by the time she actually saw the inside of a cell. She had long since ceased to be a threat to society, so protecting the world from her by putting her away clearly wasn't the point. The near-total neglect of actual education or career prep that might enable women to be able to quickly secure a job that might keep them out of the kinds of situations that landed them in prison in the first place shows that rehabilitation isn't what's going on. Our ever-growing prison population shows that deterrence isn't working. So it's just punitive then. And what point does that actually serve? Do most people feel like it's a moral victory to imprison low-level drug offenders, with all the costs that it entails?

Kerman is a good writer, and is more sympathetic than her television portrayal would suggest. She accepts her guilt for her crime, and while she's certainly surprised and upset that her brief stint with crime comes back to haunt her years later, once she's gotten used to the idea, she's mostly regretful about the impact it has on her family and loved ones. She takes the reader inside a world that most of us won't ever experience, and renders it with empathy and humor. This is a solid read, and as long as you're not expecting it to be just like the show, I'd definitely recommend it.

Tell me, blog you anyone that's ever been incarcerated?

One year ago, I was reading: Moonglow

Two years ago, I was reading: Suspicious Minds

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