Review: Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerwin

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In her early twenties Piper Kerwin longed for adventure and a life on the edge, so when her glamorous girlfriend suggested she carry a suitcase full of drug money through customs she agreed. She never dreamt that this seemingly harmless act would land her in prison more than a decade later. The book chronicles Kerwin's time in the federal prison of Danbury, Connetticut. University educated, well off and white she initially feels out of place and terrified, but through unexpected acts of kindness from her fellow prisoners and her own resourcefulness, Kerwin gets through her 13 month stay. The fact that Kerwin is educated and privileged allows readers like me, who are from a similar background and who, like Kerwin, would not expect something like this to ever happen to them, to relate to her predicament. As she was warned beforehand by a friend, the thing Kerwin struggled with the most while behind bars was "chickenshit rules enforced by chickenshit people." The arbitrary nature of prison rules and the endless waiting to get even the simplest things done could drive someone anyone crazy. One example is fact that the prison provides inmates with laundry soap but not soap for washing their bodies, nor toothpaste or shower shoes to avoid the ever present threat of horrible foot funguses. Then there is the fact that for at least the first month of their incarceration they are unable to even buy such necessities for themselves, relying solely on the kindness of other prisoners to provide for them.

Kerwin also struggles with her separation from her fiancé, Larry, the awful food, the boredom and isolation. However, she comes to accept all of this as her due for her crime which no longer seems so abstract to her once she comes face to face with so many women whose lives have been destroyed by drugs. Some reviewers have criticised the book as self congratulatory, but to me there seems to be real remorse when Kerwin talks about how she pretended to herself that what she was doing wasn't hurting anyone, and how she used to have a "gangster mentality" thinking of only herself and her own family and not of others. Kerwin also chronicles the hardships that don't affect her so much personally, such as the almost total lack of any real rehabilitation programs or advice on reentering life "on the outs." She sees mothers separated from their children who have lost their parental rights, noting that 80% of the incarcerated women are mothers. She meets an elderly woman jailed for taking phone messages for her drug dealing son and a nun imprisoned for protesting. She learns of women who complained of being sexually harrassed by the guards only to find themselves put into solitary confinement "for their own protection." Kerwin makes quite a few friends in Danbury who help make her stay there easier and less lonely. It would have been nice to hear what happened to these women afterwards, along with something about how Kerwin settles back in to civillian life but there is no epilogue. The book just ends with Kerwin's release and reunion with her fiance. And before anyone complains, that's not really a spoiler since it says right there on the cover that she was only in there for a year. Kerwin learns a lot during her brief stay in prison, and the reader probably will too. Recommended for those interested in hearing about life in a women's prison, or just looking for a book about facing the consequences of one's actions.

Published: 2012

Rated: ★★★★☆

#biography #nonfiction #lesbian #prison #crime

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