Even though I’m on TV, I don’t watch a lot of TV. I do not keep up with any of the hot shows, including Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison. A few months ago New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu invited me to moderate a discussion with himself and Piper Kerman the author of the memoir, Orange is the New Black. I had no idea that the show was based off a true story. After I interviewed her, I was interested in reading the book. It was my first read of 2017.
In her early 20s, Piper Kerman dated a lesbian who was caught up in an international drug trafficking ring. Piper agreed to carry a suitcase of drug money for her girlfriend at the time. She eventually leaves the woman, ends up in New York, meets her future husband and lives a normal quiet life. Ten years later her old life catches up with her, and she is sentenced to a little more than a year in a federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut for carrying the suitcase with the drug money.
THE OTHER SIDE OF DISPARITY IN THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM
Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the world. As a journalist, I have found myself drawn to stories about people caught up in the criminal justice system, especially since poor people and minorities are treated drastically different from others. I have heard first hand accounts from people who had one non-violent offenses but couldn’t get out of the system because they didn’t have money. They end up with a public defender, a criminal record that they can’t afford to expunge, and then it’s difficult to find a job because they have a record. That’s one side of the story for people in jail.
The other side is told in this book. Piper makes it clear on several instances that she is being treated better because she is a white woman with blonde hair. She also has many advantages that the other women in prison don’t. She has tons of support from the outside, so she gets lots of mail and regular visitors. She has a good lawyer, a short sentence compared to many of the other women who are serving years of time, and she has a job waiting for her when she gets out from a friend with a company.
I believe everyone should tell their story and I do appreciate that she seems to tell hers honestly and unfiltered. When she feels like she’s being favored, she says it. But I must admit that after a while, the blonde hair references got old. I didn’t need to keep being reminded why she was being treated differently at times. It’s America. We get it. I also think it’s great that she said hey my story is different from the women I am in here with, but I see what they are going through. It’s not right and the prison system is flawed. She could have done her time and carried on with her life, but I get a sense part of her motivation for writing the book was to expose the injustices she witnessed even when they weren’t impacting her.
With that being said, even the fact that she ends up in prison, writes about it, and becomes a New York Times best seller screams privilege.
IT'S GREAT TO SEE WOMEN SUPPORTING WOMEN
Take away the jail cells, and some of the moments in this book could be set in my all-girls high school. The holiday celebrations complete with crafts and dishes made from contraband food, the gossiping, the time spent on styling hair were all so normal. It was nice to see that prison could not erase that basic human instinct to bond with other people. Piper goes through a range of emotions in the book- shame over her situation, hostility towards the ex who got her wrapped up in the drug deal in the first place, depression when her grandmother passes away while she is behind bars, but the most emotional parts for me were her goodbyes to the women who accepted her and made her feel like part of a family.
WHAT IS THE APPROPRIATE PUNISHMENT FOR NON-VIOLENT OFFENDERS?
Piper brings up about the lack of rehabilitative services in prison and she questions if prison is the best option for non-violent offenders like herself and many of the other non-violent offenders that she is in jail with. She feels tearing people away from their families and children and locking them up even though they pose no threat to society seems all wrong, and the book would make many people question if shutting off these women from society is best for anyone. At the same time, Piper does seem to downplay her actions. She writes them off as a silly phase in her younger years. She seems to feel like she should not be punished for that. I love that this book makes people think about prison and it’s benefit to society as a whole as opposed to just accepting that “bad” people should be locked away. For me, the takeaway from this book is the way it humanizes the women in prison and shows that circumstances aside, they are more like us than we might think.