My Year in a Women's Prison
Spiegel & Grau: 320 pp., $25
Many of us have done something that could have gotten us arrested. The pot we smoked in college, the time we sold a couple of hits of ecstasy to a friend, even being in the room when a bigger drug deal went down could have sunk us. Had it gone just a little awry or had the wrong person shown up at the wrong time, we could be wearing that orange jumpsuit.
Piper Kerman's wild youth came back and kicked her in the butt. She had followed her drug-dealing lover halfway across the world and been persuaded to ferry some money — one time only — through international customs. Five years later, the Feds appeared at her door and busted her. It was a conspiracy charge, someone had named her and under the specifics of the law she was almost definitely going to jail. This was despite the top-notch attorney she could hire, despite the support of her parents, her boyfriend, her boyfriend's parents and all her friends, and despite the fact that she had lived an exemplary life in the meantime. She had done the crime. She pleaded guilty and in return was awarded a relatively light sentence, 15 months.
Doesn't sound like a long time, and "compared to most of these women's sentences, fifteen months were a blip" — but not to Kerman her "first time down." To those of us "on the outs," able to run to the grocery store, use the phone and take a shower in private, a year can pass in a blink. But in "Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison," Kerman puts us inside, from the first strip search (yes, even women have to squat and cough) to the prison-issue unwashed underwear to the cucumbers and raw cauliflower that count as salad. The 13 months she serves, two off for good behavior, are by far the longest of her life.
This is not Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment." It's not Chester Himes' "Yesterday Will Make You Cry." When Kerman looks up at the sun, she sees the sunshine and it feels warm. She is not a poet or a master of metaphor. But this book is impossible to put down because she could be you. Or your best friend. Or your daughter. She's a graduate of Smith College who fell in love with a romantic idea of being bad and dangerous. Her flirtation with the underworld was very brief, and she got out, came home, met a nice man and landed a good job. And then she went to prison.
Don't think this is a "white girl goes to prison and finds meaning in her life" kind of book. Kerman had plenty of gratitude for how good her life was before those two federal agents came knocking. It's not about the "colorful characters" she meets or how she gets to know — and like — women from the projects. From the beginning, she has a lot of self-awareness and appreciation for how lucky she is. She is educated and pretty, so the prison officials treat her better. Her fiancé comes to visit her every single week. Her parents come almost as often. Her friends send her books and letters daily. She knows many of her fellow inmates have committed crimes no worse than hers, but because of overworked Legal Aid lawyers and limited resources they are in for many years while she has only months. Kerman went to Danbury Federal Prison in Connecticut not long before Martha Stewart went to Alderson (in West Virginia) and Stewart is a kind of running joke throughout. There are obvious parallels between the two blond, advantaged WASPS. Kerman is well aware that when she and Stewart are released, they each have a family, a house and a job waiting.
So much of this book is funny and warm, but the most striking thing is the hopelessness of it. This is not a book about redemption in the penal system. Kerman worries about every inmate who "packs out" and goes home. Will she make it? She notes that "about eighty percent of the women in U.S. prisons have children," but when they leave, some after many years, with only the clothes they're wearing and a few dollars, without jobs or places to live, what kind of parents will they be? The pre-release classes are a joke. No one tells these women how to survive, much less thrive on the outs. No wonder "two-thirds of all released prisoners are locked up again." Before they leave, rather than celebrating, many prisoners get depressed.
Through these women, Kerman comes to understand the seriousness of her crime. Not because it was illegal, or because she is in prison, but because of the women she meets, many of whom suffer from addiction. "[F]or the first time I really understood how my choices made me complicit in their suffering. I was the accomplice to their addiction." She continues: "A lengthy term of community service working with addicts on the outside would probably have driven the same truth home and been a hell of a lot more productive for the community. … Instead, our system of ‘corrections' is about arm's-length revenge and retribution. … Then its overseers wonder why people leave prison more broken than when they went in."
Wagman is the author of the novels "Skin Deep," "Spontaneous" and