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Is orange the new black?

Jul 26 2014

In 1993, Piper Kerman carried a bag of drug money from Chicago to Brussels.  

Ten years later, two men knocked on Piper Kerman’s door. 

The two men were U.S Customs officers. She had been indicted in federal court for drug smuggling and money laundering. That knock began her unexpected “journey through the criminal justice system.”

Kerman’s story of legal fees, strip searches, steel-toed boots, and maggot-infested showers is the stuff of nightmares. But after her memoir Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison soared to #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, it also became the stuff of primetime television. 

Orange Is the New Black is a Netflix Original Series that has captured the imagination of millions of viewers and a Golden Globe nomination for best actress. It has also sparked a firestorm of controversy about privilege, gender, race, crime, and the criminal justice system. It is at once a bestseller and a blockbuster, a muckraking tell-all and a heart-wrenching memoir, all mixed together in what the media call a “dramedy.” Kerman’s story is a cautionary tale and an adventure story. And it is also a story about women, for women, because women’s prison is, in Kerman’s words, “a women’s community.”

The learning curve

“The last thing I expected on my first day of prison was kindness—but kindness was what I found,” Kerman reflected in her recent talk to a packed audience at Stanford’s Cemex Auditorium. An alumna of Smith College, Kerman began her talk by explaining how jarring it was to go from a comfortable upper-class life to one behind bars. In the Danbury, Connecticut women’s prison where she was incarcerated, Kerman quickly learned to keep her “eyes open and mouth shut.” The learning curve was steep.

Two sets of rules reigned in Danbury: prison rules of security checks and red tape and prisoner rules that kept the peace and preserved respect. “When everything else is taken from you,” Kerman said, “respect is really important.” She described the “prisoner rules” as “rituals” that maintain the “social ecology of the place.”

This “social ecology,” Kerman found, was complex and delicate. She learned how to survive endless headcounts, strip searches, and security checks. She studied the etiquette of showering and eating. She learned how to clean her shared cell with maxi-pads, which she described as the prison’s “primary cleaning tool.”  She learned to digest prison chow—a vile mix of “cheap and greasy starch” and “rubbery, orange cheese”—and prepare “prison cheesecake” with the scant ingredients available to inmates. And most importantly Kerman learned about how warmth and friendship can persist even in a cold, hostile institution.

Real crimes, real victims

Kerman’s greatest lesson, though, was that her role in trafficking narcotics had actually hurt people. Kerman spoke, for example, of “Pom-Pom,” a young woman whose harsh pre-prison life was a cycle of poverty, abuse, and addiction. Pom-Pom had followed her own mother into the criminal justice system and suffered periods of homelessness. When Pom-Pom left prison, she had nowhere to sleep but on the floor of a grudging relative’s house.

By supporting drug rings, Kerman came to realize, she had played a role in victimizing people who, like Pom-Pom, lived in poverty due largely to drug addiction. More than the fact of her incarceration, Kerman’s new friendships led her to realize that her “own action had furthered their suffering.” This was her true punishment: seeing how women without privilege had been hurt by crimes like hers.  

A call for prison reform

For all the unexpected kindness and friendship, prison was still an awful place. Kerman called that year in confinement her “season in hell”—a place where women were shackled during childbirth, where an hour’s hard labor earned 14 to 23 cents, and where solitary confinement was a constant threat.

The point of writing Orange Is the New Black, Kerman explained, was not to navel-gaze or applaud her own bravery, but to issue a call for prison reform. There are over 200,000 women in confinement in the United States, she said, which is an 800% increase in women’s incarceration rates since the 1980s. This jump is mainly due to harsher penalties for drug-related offenses. Over 90,000 prisoners are incarcerated for drug offenses, compared with only 40,000 for violence.

Like most women in Danbury, Kerman was locked up for a nonviolent drug offense. It was a “merciless and inflexible system,” Kerman reflects. Most of her fellow prisoners “were [there] for things like low-level dealing, allowing their apartments to be used for drug activity, serving as couriers, and passing messages, all for low wages.” These women were not dangers to society, Kerman suggested.

A “fish out of water” draws fire

Though Kerman’s nonviolent offense didn’t set her apart from her fellow inmates, her path to prison certainly did. “Most of the women in the Camp [prison] were poor, poorly educated, and came from neighborhoods where the mainstream economy was barely present and the narcotics trade provided the most opportunities for employment,” Kerman said. And Kerman’s privileged background meant that her consequences were different: her 15-month sentence might be related to her “fantastic private attorney and a country-club suit to go with my blond bob.”

Orange Is the New Black has come under fire for these reasons. Many claim that Kerman—a “nice blond lady”—doesn’t represent the prison population. And it is only her privileged perspective, critics argue, that got Kerman a book deal while her fellow inmates were released back into the cycle of poverty, drug use, and addiction that had landed them there.

Other critics have said that Kerman’s memoir is typical of the “middle-class transgression genre.” And though Kerman acknowledged that Orange is the New Black was billed as a “fish out of water” tale, it was her story just the same. Maybe she can’t speak for everyone, but she can speak for herself and the very human tale it tells.

Motherhood and women’s crimes

There is, however, one characteristic that women in prison overwhelmingly share: most are mothers. Four out of five women in American prisons have children. One in 28 American children have a parent in the criminal justice system, and for children, having a mother locked away can be particularly hard. Children of incarcerated mothers often end up in the foster care system—or even in prison themselves. When “visiting hours were over,” Kerman remembers, it was “gut-wrenching to watch the goodbyes” between mothers and their children.

Some women even become mothers while they were in prison. Kerman’s fellow inmate Doris gave birth in prison: after Doris was taken to the hospital in handcuffs, she was separated from her baby boy just hours after childbirth and returned to her cell. 

While motherhood an issue that hits most women prisoners, all women prisoners deal with their sex. “When you lay gender on top of it,” Kerman said, it was hard to “imagine a less equal relationship than the one between correctional officers and prisoners.” Numbers quantifying the incidents of sexual abuse in women’s prison are hard to measure, but in 2004, Amnesty International reported nearly 1500 allegations of staff sexual misconduct against female inmates. 

“Women’s pathways into prison are different from a lot of guys,” Kerman said, arguing that women are often coerced into illegal activity by men in their lives. Women prisoners are also much less likely to have committed violent offenses. Women’s crimes often speak volumes to their disadvantaged position in society. These crimes are weapons of the weak: bad checks, shoplifting, petty theft, and, of course, prostitution.

A women’s community and a human story

“This is a book about women, for women – this is a women’s community.” Prison is different for men and for women, Kerman said, and she hopes that Orange Is the New Black will demystify the “invisible” world of women in prison. 

As she writes in her afterword, “We have a racially based justice system that overpunishes, fails to rehabilitate, and doesn’t make us safer.” But, she hopes Orange Is the New Black will help with prison justice reform—putting “fewer Americans in prison without compromising public safety.”

As the glowing reviews, legions of fans, and Golden Globe nominations show, Kerman’s story is quickly becoming the most influential story about prison in America. And as Kerman’s memoir so deftly shows, there isn’t one single story to tell: women in prison come from all walks of life.

They are mothers and daughters, grandmothers and great-grandmothers. They are artists and peaceniks and even nuns. And, yes, some of them are also gang lords or small-time drug runners, white-collar criminals locked up for internet auction fraud or forgery or money-laundering. But they are all, in Kerman’s words, “just everyday people” who represent many races, ages, religions, and backgrounds. Kerman might not represent the “typical” prisoner because there is no such thing as a “typical” woman in prison. 

Piper Kerman’s story is a story of a woman, a prisoner, a particular person in a particular place, but it is also shows how there is no one type of prisoner because there is no one type of person. We all have made bad decisions and hurt others and, mostly, swallowed the bitter pill of repentance outside prison walls. Her story is showing us all how prisoners and prison is important to all Americans, regardless of race or class or gender, whether incarcerated or free, because it is story about us all as human beings – weak, fallible, only sometimes forgivable.

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.