Thursday, August 15, 2013

Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison (Spiegel & Grau, 2011) by Piper Kerman, 327 pages

Orange is the New Black (13 episode series available only on Netflix)

I eagerly snapped up this book as I was absolutely gob-smacked by the series that premiered in July. There's a lot of hype surrounding this book and the new Netflix series, much of it well deserved. The author spent thirteen months in a minimum security prison for a ten year old drug offense for money laundering and drug trafficking.

She was fresh out of college and engaged in a relationship with "Nora" a woman who was involved in an international drug cartel conscripting mules to move drug money across borders. When Nora got snared years later, Piper was as well. Kerman spent six years in limbo while the courts tried to nab the African kingpin who was the head of the cartel and various others ... when the legal indictments finally trickled down to Kerman she received a fifteen month sentence at the FCI Danbury, CT prison for women. Who could resist exploring this premise?

Kerman is an accomplished, if novice, writer. What her descriptions lack in beauty of construction it makes up for with her evocative, pointed observations on the sometimes terrifying, sometimes mundane aspects of life in prison.

Much of the humour, and the pathos, comes from the "white girl in a strange world" vibe that Kerman tries to capture - an upper middle class boho New Yorker and Smith College graduate in a strange and alienating environment. Yes, she is naive, frightened, inept at adapting sometimes, horrified by some of what she sees but also compassionate, forgiving of the ugliness she was exposed to. It is not beautiful prose but it is compelling reading. How can it not be when she has this amazing cast of characters* who surround her?

The pacifist nun. Yoga Janet. Pop the Russian emigre/head cook in prison with a mean streak and a soft spot for Piper. Vanessa, the lovely transgender MtF who runs the beauty salon. Pornstache, the malicious prison guard. Rosemarie, forever planning her wedding for when she is released. Pennsatucky, the holyrolling, crack smoking Christian. Big Boo, a very likable bull dyke despite her forbidding appearance. The tart-tongued Delicious who admires Piper's perky breasts when she first enters prison. Mrs. Jones, an elderly prisoner who proudly wears the moniker OG (Old Gangster).

There are the situations that you would expect in this book: prisoners dividing into racial and class lines (the prison is composed of 50% Latinas, 25% white, 25% black with a tiny smattering of "other"); many of the women engaged in lesbian activity are "gay for the stay"; some of the guards are unbelievably cruel and vulgar (prison guard DeSimon I'm looking at you).
Piper Kerman
Kerman's self-described "All-American-Girl force field of stoicism" in the book sometimes irks. Perhaps Mom told her it's impolite to whine or complain? In the book, those who surround her are impossibly forgiving of her situation - her fiancee Larry, her parents, her brother, her future in-laws, all of her friends .... was there truly no one in her life that said, "How could you?"  She seems at times very forgiving of the most egregious transgressions in prison ... this is a gracious response but is it an honest one? Most of the time she seems just mildly annoyed, rarely enraged - perhaps I find this difficult to understand as one sips a cupful of righteous anger like coffee in the morning.  

Until ... the final pages of the memoir when Kerman is transferred to a Chicago prison before testifying at a trial involving one of the men involved in the cartel just before her release. The conditions are so dire, the women in prison so damaged or mentally ill, the situation so pitiful, that we begin to see the rage and despair that one would expect in these circumstances.

Taylor Schilling's performance as Piper Chapman (Kerman's doppelganger on the series), is appreciably more skittish throughout as is Jason Biggs' performance as her fiance Larry. He is, by turns, anxious, angry, frustrated, loving, supportive, jealous of the "Nora" character, renamed Alex (Laura Prepon) in the series who ends up in the same prison. It's a comic and affecting performance (and more realistic).

The comedy is understandably heightened in the series: Mom is a bit of a prissy blonde ice queen; the Jewish in-laws conform to type; the brother is a goofy slacker who lives in a trailer. The guards fall into predictable categories too - the sexually exploitative Mendez with the pornstache; the hunky but honorable Bennett who impregnates one of the young Hispanic girls; the career climbing senior warden official; the older counselor who is secretly in love with Piper and turns against her when his affection is unrequited.

In comparing the two media - book versus series - I have to opt for the series. The writers of the show have cleverly manipulated real events in Piper's life in prison into affecting, dramatic moments. When Piper (Taylor Schilling) accidentally insults the head cook of the prison, she is literally denied food for days by the kitchen staff. When a screwdriver goes missing (obviously a major issue in prison) because Piper has mistakenly forgotten it somewhere the ensuing drama is effectively heightened and the screwdriver utilized in a most surprising manner. Piper's admirer, who wishes her to be her prison "wife", a slightly demented prisoner nicknamed Crazy Eyes, is treated with generosity and humour in the series despite her sometimes troubling actions (peeing in Piper's cell when she is angry with her).

The incident that would garner the most interest is whether the "Nora" character in the book truly does show up in the memoir. She does but it's nowhere as intense nor as problematic as her appearance on the series.

In one specific aspect the series is superior. The series devotes a great deal of time to how the women ended up in prison - the stories are varied, sometimes dispiriting and highly emotional.

Kerman tries to address issues that affect the women, not  just focusing on her own personal dilemmas - the lack of a workable GED program in prison; the abysmally low wages ($0.14 /hour at the bottom of the wage scale); the women paying for almost all amenities, even the most basic; the preponderance of poor and disadvantaged women imprisoned for relatively minor drug offenses; the very real presence of psychologically disturbed guards or COs who have complete control over the women's lives. 
Prison is quite literally a ghetto... a place where the U.S. government now puts not only the dangerous but also the inconvenient - people who are mentally ill, people who are addicts, people who are poor and uneducated and unskilled. Meanwhile the ghetto in the outside world is a prison as well, and a much more difficult one to escape from than this correctional compound. In fact, there is basically a revolving door between our urban and rural ghettos and the formal ghetto of our prison system.
It's unjust. It's unsustainable. The prison system holds more than two million prisoners - more than in China, more than in Russia. And the American public is paying for it. Through the nose.

*In the review, I use the names of the characters referred to in the book. It gets bit complicated talking about both vehicles in that there are possible names for many characters - the true identity of the prisoners (only a few are named as such in the book with the permission of the women). There are the book's characters who have fictional names to protect their true identities and there are the characters created for the TV series who sometimes have the same names from the book. 

Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) makes a new friend

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