Like many people this summer, I spent quite a bit of my new abundance of free time parked in front of my laptop watching the hot new season of the Netflix original series, “Orange is the New Black”. For those of you who haven’t heard by now, “Orange Is the New Black” tells the tale of Piper Chapman, an upper middle class, privileged, white woman who’s beginning to settle down and get her life in order, when she is convicted and sentenced to 15 months in a federal prison for small drug related crimes committed ten years prior. And after ravenously making my way through season two, I still wasn’t able to get enough of my favorite characters. So I decided to pick up the book that inspired it all, “Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison” by Piper Kerman. Although I must admit I picked up the book hoping to find more stories of Piper and her ex-girlfriend Alex Vause (called Nora in the book), I learned that these dramatic incidents I had loved so much in the show, were not at all the message of the book. Of course there’s nothing wrong with drama, it is a TV show after all, and the drama doesn’t necessarily make the message unclear in the show, but the book was much more of a commentary of the brutality of the prison system than the show.
One thing that really stood out to me was the structure of the book. Although there is some degree of a stream of consciousness narrative, it’s much more about using anecdotal stories as a vessel for criticism. My personal favorite example of this is a bit where Kerman discusses the implications and hypocrisy around the word “institutionalized”. She mentions the different kind of adjustments inmates have to make in order to allow their lives in prison to be even slightly bearable. She speaks to the idea in order to simply survive, we must accept our circumstances, and prison is no exception. So how can we accuse people of attempting to acclimate to an environment we’ve made deliberately unadaptable? Every prisoner must make a choice: should I cling to my life on the outside and do my time being miserable and lonely, or should I try to fit in, make friends and try to establish a basic sense of normalcy to something that will never seem normal? I think most of us would agree that an attempt at normalcy is a more desirable choice than outright misery.
Another important factor in conveying the message of the need for prison reform is Piper herself. In the show, I think most people would agree that Piper is pretty unlikable. She’s pretentious, she’s unaware of her privilege, she’s selfish, she tries too hard, and although she does exhibit some character development in season two, she’s generally just not nearly as charming or empathy inspiring as other favorites like Poussey or Taystee. While for the most part I tend to reject the notion that characters need to be likable to be effective, I think in this case it does play a large role. Piper Kerman, the author of the book, in many ways is unlike Piper Chapman. Likely because it was written retrospectively, Kerman seems to have a much greater and deeper understanding of the true brutality of the prison system. As previously stated, Chapman has a tendency to be rather selfish. She sees the system to be flawed and brutal because of the way it affects her, not necessarily because of the way it effects others. She doesn’t quite seem to understand that although while in prison, they may all be victims of the same brutality, many of the other inmates don’t have a life outside of prison that’s all that much better. Kerman, on the other hand, is constantly referencing her point of privilege and fairly stable life that awaits her in a a few short months.
Although in some ways “Orange Is the New Black” is different from screen to page, overall the message is the same and the book is a great supplement to any avid “OITNB” watcher. I highly recommend reading the book if you want a greater insight on the every day struggles of the prison system, rather than just the drama between Daiya and Bennet or Nikki’s witty comments.