About eight months ago, a good friend mailed me her copy of Orange Is the New Black by Piper Kerman. I eyed it suspiciously for its chic title and Netflix buzz. But my friend Vivian listens to my many accounts of people in prison, so I took her recommendation seriously and started reading.
Orange Is the New Black is an excellent book about the experience of being locked up. First off, it's a well-told story, an account of crime that catches up with Kerman 10 years later and interrupts her life with a year in a federal prison camp. I read it quickly, wanting to know what happens next.
But as I read, over and over I was brought up short by how well Kerman describes her fellow inmates. They are women I know from 30 years at the Catholic Worker and 10 years working with women getting out of prison, not to mention a lifetime living in Loretto and with my own family. These are real women in Kerman's book. Some of them lack impulse control, family support, education -- all the things that make for success in our society. Others are just victims of society, plain and simple. But all of them are rich, well-developed characters who deserve the dignified treatment Kerman gives them.
And Kerman puts herself right there in the mix. She's not an aloof observer but an inmate, telling us what it was like for her in prison with all these other women. Really, it's a remarkable memoir.
So what about the Netflix series? I was slow to come to it, having liked the book so much. Amazingly, it has retained the best of the book -- finely drawn characters and an anti-hero who is an inmate struggling to make the best of her life, just like everybody else.
However, the sex is salacious and gratuitous. Yes, sex will out wherever we are. Yes, sex is a human need and doesn't cost money like canteen food (though it does cost). In the book, Piper Kerman recounts what she sees other inmates doing and what she feels in the humiliation of body searches and the absence of her fiancé. In the Netflix series, we see a whole lot more. It sells, but it distorts the book and, I think, it also distorts the prison experience, making a romp out of loneliness and shame.
Additionally, the corrections officers in the series are bad men, corrupt and self-serving. Certainly, there are corrupt corrections officers, but the Netflix corruption is a mythic heightening meant to provide conflict. Well, the series isn't a documentary and, oddly enough, the vile behavior of the guards does catch the essence of the prison experience: The inmate is in the hands of others and has no control over her life.
In short, the book and the Netflix series dispel any illusions that prison time is not hard time, that prison time is well deserved, that prisoners have any control of their fate. Kerman, a middle-class white woman who got caught, has done a great service to prisoners everywhere by telling her story so well.