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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

BPL Book Discussion: Orange is the New Black

Last week, my book club met to discussion Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman.  From the publisher:
With a career, a boyfriend, and a loving family, Piper Kerman barely resembles the reckless young woman who delivered a suitcase of drug money ten years before. But that past has caught up with her. 
Convicted and sentenced to fifteen months at the infamous federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut, the well-heeled Smith College alumna is now inmate #11187–424—one of the millions of people who disappear “down the rabbit hole” of the American penal system. From her first strip search to her final release, Kerman learns to navigate this strange world with its strictly enforced codes of behavior and arbitrary rules.  
She meets women from all walks of life, who surprise her with small tokens of generosity, hard words of wisdom, and simple acts of acceptance. Heartbreaking, hilarious, and at times enraging, Kerman’s story offers a rare look into the lives of women in prison—why it is we lock so many away and what happens to them when they’re there. 
Before I begin the notes on the discussion, I want to caution those of you who watch the Netflix series, the book is COMPLETELY different.  The book is a memoir; the show is a soap opera.  Here are two small examples. One, Piper’s fiancé is probably the nicest, kindest, most supportive man you ever met in the memoir, while he is a total jerk in the show; two, Nora, Piper’s former girlfriend and the person who got her into the drug world, is not incarcerated with Piper in the book [except for a short period toward the end of the book], while in the series, they are in jail together.

Now on to the discussion:

  • We had 11 likes, 2 so-sos and not a single dislike.  I have to say, I was surprised.
    • 1 of the so-so voters said that she was left wanting to know more details about the prison system, while the other said her vote had more to do with the fact that she is not a big memoir fan.
  • Those who liked it felt very strongly:
    • I was captivated
    • I was worried it would be about the prison, but it was not-- it was about Piper.
    • I love memoirs
    • I knew I’d like it because of the subtitle, “My Year in a Women’s Prison.” I love books like that. [Becky’s note: I address this specific appeal in a subset of readalikes below.]
    • The relationships between the people is what I liked the most.
    • I loved seeing how little kindnesses can get you through the toughest times.
    • The first half was about the kindnesses she received but somewhere along the way it morphed into a story about how she grew as a person.
    • I was happy to have the chance to learn a little more about our prison system, but not too much.
    • I liked this book because it challenged me to look at my own pre-conceived notions.  Before I read this book I would have said there is no reason to have prison time for nonviolent offenders, but I saw how much she learned and grew by being forced to go to prison.  She was clearly helped by being there. She admits as much.
  • Question: Why did Piper get involved in the drug trade?
    • She was very naive and swayed by others.
    • She was looking for adventure.
    • She got to travel the world. It was easy to keep taking assignments.
    • I had to keep reminding myself that that younger Piper was so fragile and naive, and not the strong woman she later became.
    •  Immediately after college, she was a little embarrassed that she didn’t know what to do with herself, so she cut herself off from most of her friends and family.
    • The reality of the drug trade never hit her. She never touched drugs and it took until she went to prison for her to see how much her work enabling the drug trade actually hurt many people.
    • I didn’t like the pre-prison Piper, but then again, after reading the book, I don’t think she liked herself as she was either.
    • You can see this even in the way she wrote the book. In the beginning of the book, Piper struggles to describe herself. That part was harder to read. But as she learns to be "a better Piper,” the writing also flows better.
    • This book gave me an entirely different view of the drug trade.
    • I can see why so many young, middle class kids were doing the dirty work. They were savvy enough to handle the international travel and were innocent looking so didn’t get stopped.
  • Question: What did you learn about the prison system?
    • This book completely changed my mind about mandatory minimums.  I was for them but now I see how hard they are on the poor.  Piper knew to plead guilty and do her time because she was educated and had a good lawyer, but others get swept up in the system and end up doing long sentences for small offenses.
    • I was very upset by how awful the reintroduction classes were.  The inmates were not really taught anything useful about life on the outside.  They are going to be doomed to fail and come back to jail.
    • But they have the classes just so they can say they offer them. The government only cares that the classes are offered; they don’t set the curriculum.
    • Now all I can think is, “What are we accomplishing by incarcerating these nonviolent offenders?”
    • I found the juxtaposition of some rules being lax while others are strict and none of it making sense all very interesting
    • Everything revolving around the GED program was shocking.
    • Where are the incentive for improving yourself here?
    • Society doesn’t value convicts but these convicts today will be a part of our society in a few years.  If we are teaching them that they are worthless how will they rejoin society?
    • Someone brought up a recent Chicago Tribune article which said that Republicans are backing away from supporting mandatory minimum sentences.
    • We talked about how there was an 800% surge in the federal prison population recently and that housing these prisoners takes up 1/3 of the Justice Department’s budget.
  • Someone brought up the idea that maybe we need for profit prisons so that outcomes are demanded by the free market system. There were some comments:
    • Before I read this book I would have said, “No way!” and told you that you were crazy, but now, maybe.  I at least see your point.
    • There are now for profit colleges.  Some are good but many are predatory because they get access to federal student loan money and don’t give students a good education.
    • Someone would need a very solid business plan with plenty of oversight for it to work.
  • But this brought up the idea of larger reforms.  Question: What type of prison reform could work now?
    • The goals should be changed from punishment to rehabilitation.  Getting the person back into society and a productive citizen needs to become the goal.  It is clearly not the goal now though,
    • Just being there is punishment. Piper knows this.  Thankfully she did not need rehabilitation.  The imprisonment forced her to confront herself and her issues, but many people are not as self aware and worldly as her.  If she needed rehabilitation, she'd still be waiting for it.
  • Question: Let’s talk about the specific prison social structure at the Danbury Camp
    • I loved how they cooked with food from the commissary, dining hall stash, and a single microwave.  So great.
    • Their resourcefulness in general was inspiring.
    • They did a lot of cleaning.
    • All those uses for maxi pads!
    • I was shocked at how boring it was. Piper is most shocked by the boredom.
    • The jobs! Sure the cafeteria, but Piper became an electrician, working with live wires with hardly any training [safety or technical].
    • My favorite part of the book was the interaction between these women, these different women, all brought together in prison.
    • They were so kind and helpful to each other.  
    • I loved the committees
    • I was touched by the resilience of the women.
    • I wish they women were allowed to communicate after prison to form something like an alumni association. But the law forbids this. You cannot associate with anyone with a criminal record for 2 years. This seems like a missed opportunity for the women to help each other.
    • I was amazed that she could be close with people yet never know why they were in prison.
  • Piper has to go back to Chicago to testify against someone as part of her plea deal.  We all agreed that it was sad that right before she was to be released, as she was preparing to leave Danbury, she had this terrible and jarring experience. We were sad to see how badly the Chicago jail came off.
  • Question: Were you surprised that Nora came back into her life at the end
    • I am glad she ended up incarcerated with Nora while she waited for the Chicago trial. Piper had a chance to come to true forgiveness as a result.  She had avoided dealing with her feelings about Nora since they were not together.
    • We forgot about Nora, but Piper never did. 
  • Final thoughts:
    • I was shocked at how bad the camp was.  I thought it would have been nicer since it was minimum security.
    • I appreciated how Piper made this book about her and her experiences.  It is not about all prisons everywhere, just the one she was in, while she was in it.
  • Words or phrases to describe this book:
    • memoir
    • revealing
    • adding insult to injury
    • resilience
    • naive
    • counter-productive system
    • infuriating

Readalikes:  There are many directions to go here.  First, there are the many books on our prison system.  Piper Kerman has an extensive list of links on her webpage.  Go here and see where she suggests you begin. She also has  info about the TV show based on her book here too.

For another memoir view of life behind bars try Inside: Life Behind Bars in America by Michael Santos.

If you want to know more, but don't want to read a whole book you can find a quick but useful overview of the prison system in the US in  this Vlog Brothers video.

For book lovers who want another look into the prison system from an unlikely angle, try Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian by Avi Steinberg.

 But besides the obvious prison appeal here, I also think many people like the "Year in a Life" quality of this memoir.  I know that came up with our group.  Goodreads has crowd-sourced this into a list here, but some I have read and enjoyed [with links to  the reviews] can be found here:

  • A.J. Jacobs has made a career of spending a year trying something interesting.  Pre-blog I read [and loved] The Know It All, where he chronicled his year of reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. I also read and reviewed his Year of Living Biblically.
  • The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion is a beautiful look at how she dealt with the sudden death of her beloved husband for the first year after his death.
  • Animal Vegetable Mineral by Barabra Kingsolver is a memoir of the year her family tried to only eat food grown or raised within 100 miles of their home.
There are many, many more choices here, and they are ranked by the votes of users from most popular to least.

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