Diana's Reviews > Orange Is the New Black

Orange Is the New Black by Piper Kerman
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's review
Apr 07, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: kindle

** spoiler alert ** This book caught my attention because of the Smith College angle (my alma mater) and knowing that Piper Kerman wasn't the first Smithie to end up in prison -- Jean Harris, the Scarsdale Doctor murderess preceded her. And of course, there's the other Seven Sisters grad, Martha Stewart, who gets some ink in Kerman's book, since Stewart was sentenced to prison while Kerman was in serving her sentence. On a personal level, I'm terrified by prisons and was curious how a blond, educated woman could survive 15 months in one, even if it was minimum security.

After Kerman graduated from Smith, she got involved with a woman who was doing business with a West African drug lord. Soon, it was Kerman's business, and she made a terrible mistake by shepherding suitcases of laundered drug money around the world. Finally Kerman makes a smart move: she leaves the woman and relocates to San Francisco, where she settles down with some normal friends and meets a great guy. After a few years, Kerman relaxes, figuring her dark past will fade behind her. Her boyfriend gets an editing job in NYC, and she moves there with him. One day as she's working at home, she gets the knock on the door that changes her life: she's been named in a federal drug trafficking case and she's got to appear in federal court in Chicago to answer to charges of money laundering, etc.

No one really knows about Kerman's past, including her boyfriend, her family, and many of her friends. The news is a shock to them, but everyone assures her she'll beat the charges. But Kerman's a smart woman: she knows that with the new federal minimum sentencing guidelines in place, there's no way she'll escape prison time. After many years of legal wrangling (not hers, but involving the drug lord), Kerman surrenders herself at FCI Danbury in western Connecticut.

Kerman is a terrific writer. My heart was pounding as she described what it was like to go through processing, to be at the mercy of guards, counselors, and even medical personnel during her time behind bars (actually, there were no bars in Danbury -- she was in the minimum security camp for low-risk offenders). What was really surprising was how well she fit in with the other women doing time. Her characterizations were excellent; I could easily imagine the women who surrounded her. My only negative was that there were so many women she wrote about, it was hard to keep them apart. When I read the book again, I'm going to keep notes on who is who.

When I finished the book (I read it in less than a day, on Kindle for Mac no less!), I actually did some research on how I could get a job in a women's prison, or how to do volunteer work. I was so angered by Kerman's descriptions of the useless workshops and information sessions given to inmates, that I wanted to do something to help. (In one such housing session, rather than tell the women how to find good housing -- a big concern for many women leaving the corrections system -- the bozo gave them home improvement tips.)

In the book, Kerman takes full responsibility for her crime. I never got the sense that she felt she didn't deserve the punishment. And I totally believed her "lesson learned" at the end of the book (I won't spoil it for readers).

In sum, an excellent book. It's not the most cheery of reads, but it'll get you thinking about the decisions you make in life and questioning your assumptions about prison and the people who end up there.
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