Memoir Monday: Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

Monday, February 16, 2015

This series is dedicated to my deep love for memoirs, alliterations, and Mondays. (Note: I don't actually like Mondays. I'm not that girl.)

When I asked for Netflix suggestions, many of you suggested Orange is the New Black, but I wanted to read the OITNB memoir first before binge-watching. (Plus, we were busy binge watching House of Cards! #obsessed #countdowntoseason3) Well, I finally finished the book and here's my take!

Piper Kerman's memoir is certainly powerful. And I did like it. But I didn't love it. I found it decidedly eye-opening but I didn't find it particularly exciting. Still, I gave it 3 out of 5 stars on goodreads. I do recommend reading it if you (like me!) know nothing about the prison system in the U.S.

Still interested? A closer look:

People is quoted saying "The true subject of this unforgettable book is female bonding and the ties that even bars can't unbind." on the cover, and I couldn't agree more. Women immediately take Kerman under their wings and teach her the bizarre prison routines. They share contraband items, celebrate birthdays and holidays with limited resources, craft fancy prison foods in the microwave, practice yoga together. It's moving. The hard part for me was a lot how prison was like a revolving door -- women being moved to other units, women going home when their sentences ended, new women beginning their sentence. Because of this I struggled developing any bond with the supporting characters since they seemed to be ever-changing. I did, however, really like Piper and her unique perspective.

Kerman authentically shows us the mundane side of prison life, but sometimes that monotony does not translate into a page-turner. Much of prison is waiting. Chipping away at your sentence, one day at a time, one month at a time. Running around and around the track. Doing your boring prison job. Eating bland meal after bland meal after bland meal. Mail call. Weekly visiting hours. Cleaning your area for inspection. It reminded me of a war story, where you think the story would be all action-packed battles, but really it's just a lot sitting around and waiting in the trenches. I think this was fine, because it was a realistic depiction of her experience, but I'm willing to bet Netflix added quite a few action scenes.

For the first time in my life, I am absolutely convinced of the importance of prison reform in the United States. This is the reason you SHOULD read the book. Some startling facts:

*The U.S. has the biggest prison population in the world -- we incarcerate 25% of the world's prisoners, though we are only 5% of the world's population.

*In 1980, we had about 500,000 Americans in prison; now we have more than 2.3 million people locked up. You can basically blame the "war on drugs" and rules surrounding it (e.g. minimum sentences) for causing most of this dramatic increase. Therefore, there are many many low-level offenders who pose little threat of violence (like Kerman) behind bars.

*It costs ~$30,000 a year to keep a female inmate behind bars. (Again, most of these people are not violent.) There were even nuns in prison with Kerman!

*There are very limited programs to equip inmates for re-entrance into the outside world. The ones they have are hardly effective. This is one reason prisoners often get released only to return to prison shortly. Doing time makes you better at doing time. It doesn't make you better prepared for society.

The book lists a bunch of prison reform organizations in the back, and I'm thinking of researching a few. I'll let you know if I find any particularly interesting organizations! I'd love to hear what you think of this memoir if you've read it. Also, as always, I'd love to hear any memoir recommendations you have for future Memoir Mondays! xx

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