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Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison

Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison - Piper Kerman, Cassandra Campbell Piper, a well-educated Smith College graduate, is immature and irresponsible. She is living a life beneath her abilities and her intelligence, making foolish job decisions, falling in with a druggie crowd, exhibiting confusion about her own sexual orientation, and making life-changing, devastating decisions which seriously compromise her future. Although she escapes the life of questionable morality, ends her downward spiral and winds up getting engaged and following a straight and narrow course, her past eventually catches up with her, and she is arrested.
The wheels of justice spin slowly and often without logic. Because of the continuing investigation of the criminal case in which she was prosecuted, she remains free, although found guilty, for ten long years. She is left in limbo, wondering what her fate would ultimately be in terms of the length of her sentence and the prison to which she would be assigned. The love and friendship she found in the intervening years “between the crime and the time”, serve to stand her in good stead when she is finally forced to pay her debt to society. Her friends and family stand by her and offer the support she needs to survive her incarceration.
When, ultimately, she leaves for prison to serve her term after ten years have passed, her crime is long forgotten. She has already reformed her life and is an upstanding citizen. Under those circumstances, to this reader, the prison sentence seemed unfairly imposed. If prison is supposed to rehabilitate through the punishment, then surely watching ten years of your life go by with uncertainty, while you are living an exemplary life, seems long enough to be considered time served. Imposing further time in a prison seemed like cruel and unusual punishment. When incarcerated, all of the new, first time offenders are scared, and were it not for the inmates already there, who provided the “newbies” with the basic information and supplies they needed, the experience would have been even worse. The women protected each other and formed cliques based on their ethnicity and their backgrounds.
Once in prison, Piper seemed to have a pretty charmed life because of her good looks and intelligence. Her educated background served her in good stead and she was able to figure out the rules, written and unwritten, and to help her fellow prisoners, writing letters and papers. When the supervisor of her work detail took undue liberties, she was able, against all odds, to get transferred to another work group. Unfortunately, she was not able to get a furlough to visit her grandmother when she became fatally ill, but on the other hand, she had several visitors on a weekly basis and enough money in her account to provide herself with necessities and make her life as palatable as possible, under such circumstances. She was better able to make the best of an awful situation than most of the prisoners with her because they were poor and uneducated.
The book does point out the injustices of the justice system and the need for reform. However, although the author seems to want you to feel sorry for the conditions in prison, I felt sorrier for the foolish life choices the women made which condemned them in the first place. The book attempts to provide the reader with insight into the demeaning prison culture and a view of the intimidation practiced by some of the more cruel and insensitive guards. Female prisoners were guarded by male and female guards which sometimes made for more discomfort. Piper felt that the function of the prison was to humiliate rather than rejuvenate and restore the victim to society. She also believed t he length of sentences for the crimes committed were indiscriminate and excessive. Employees of the prison system Piper experienced did not always have stellar characters, and many took advantage of the prisoner’s impotence with verbal, if not physical abuse. Sometimes, assignments for work and special privileges were based on the whim of the counselor in charge or the officer in charge of the work group. Prisoners were at the mercy of those in charge.
The system is absolutely unjust. The judge has some leeway in the imposition of a sentence, and often, it is colored by his background, religion and/or mood or his subjective opinion of the defendant. Objectivity is not always in evidence. Prison sentences for particular federal crimes are sometimes mandated with little opportunity for leeway by the judge, but sometimes, the sentence seemed more unjust because the term of the sentence was not uniformly applied to all similar offenders. To avoid the iniquity, it is far better not to commit the crime, not to enter the labyrinthine maze of the penal system at all. The system makes the prisoner powerless and that is not a recipe for success.
The book enlightens the reader about Piper’s crime and the daily life of her time served. It often became tedious with too many details, with diary-like information which slowed the progress and thread of the book, but it seems perfectly suited to be the serialized TV program it became. For me, as a reader, I would have liked to see some of the characters better developed. I would have liked to find out more about how they made out in the world after their release, especially those who had served lengthy sentences.
The book seemed like “chick lit” and, as such, more suited to the twenty to forty age group than to older readers. The music, the language and the experiences are far more familiar to them. It was often repetitive and Piper took to philosophizing and extolling her own accomplishments far too often. The reader of the audio was excellent. If not for her, I doubt that I would have finished the book; there simply wasn’t enough structure or meat in the subject matter for me.