As a prisoner in the Federal Correctional Institute in Danbury, Connecticut, Piper Kerman had a choice every week: Subject her visitors and herself to the guards’ mockery and humiliation, including required strip searches, or protect them against the dismaying process of getting cleared for visits, and lose her contact with the outside world. Brushing up against the daily indignities of lockup is the text of the story that spills out in Orange Is The New Black, but Kerman never shrinks from the human element, even when regret and repentance overwhelm her.
Kerman was given 15 months at Danbury after pleading guilty to a conspiracy charge in federal court, a remainder from a youthful adventure long forgotten before U.S. Customs agents showed up at her door. An aimless college graduate whose then-girlfriend had joined a heroin ring headed by a West African warlord, Kerman traveled all over the world on paid-for tickets in exchange for transporting the odd suitcase full of cash, dropping out only after being asked to carry the product itself. Against her family’s hopes, Kerman reconciles herself to serving time, becoming known in prison for the heap of books next to her bunk, nearly coming to blows over the salad bar, and repeatedly facing the question of what a woman “like her” was doing in lock-up.
Kerman baldly admits how ill-suited she is to process the paths her fellow inmates have taken, or to understand their experiences. Her critique of prison educational and work programs is well-articulated; her sympathy for and attempts to connect with her bunkmate, who never talks about her offense, are a narrative dead end.
What Kerman really brings to the table in Orange Is The New Black is an almost bracing emotional immediacy. Describing the shop supervisor who once took her work crew to a nearby lake to relax, or the prison-wide celebration of Mother’s Day, scratches at spots that still feel raw, even years after Kerman’s release. And her evocation of the passage of time as experienced behind bars offers an original view into the prisoner’s psyche. (Kerman and the other inmates take particular interest in Martha Stewart’s trial and sentencing, as Danbury was the prison Stewart requested for placement, but was not granted.)
Even though she never handled drugs herself, Kerman has ample time to confront the human damage that her actions fed, in the form of addicts struggling to qualify for prison treatment, chafing under minimum sentences they didn’t understand, or fantasizing about the fix they’ll get as soon as they leave. As her ordeal transforms that previously victimless crime, Kerman chafes under her burden but recognizes its lightness, and her insight in Orange Is The New Black allows her to make amends.