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Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison    by Piper Kerman order for
Orange is the New Black
by Piper Kerman
Order:  USA  Can
Spiegel & Grau, 2011 (2010)
Hardcover, Paperback, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In Orange is the New Black, middle class Piper Kerman shares the experience of her unexpected 'Year in a Women's Prison'. Though Piper fully acknowledges the crime that resulted in her doing the time (thirteen months, including eleven at the federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut), it was a mistake she made in her youth more than a decade before the system finally caught up with her.

It's quite a memoir. In her early twenties, at loose ends after graduating from Smith college, longing to 'experience, experiment, investigate', 'with a thirst for bohemian counterculture', and in an unhealthy relationship with a charismatic older woman who was also a drug-smuggler, Piper was involved in money laundering for a West African drug lord. She came to her senses, moved on with her life, and fell in love with Larry in San Francisco. They moved to New York together.

Out of the blue in 1988, Piper was indicted in Chicago, and faced a thirty month mandatory minimum sentence. A series of events delayed her jail time for almost six years. During this time, Piper and Larry were engaged. Finally, in 2004, her prison term (reduced to fifteen months) began. Piper kept her head down, played by the rules, jogged daily (and later took up yoga), and was given a great deal of support by more experienced inmates. Larry visited steadily. Friends sent an 'avalanche of letters' as well as regular reams of reading material. A bunch of New Yorkers wore 'orange in solidarity w/ Piper's plight', hence the title. And a friend of a friend (who had served over seven years in prison) gave sage advice.

Piper compares jail time with residence at 'an elite women's college' ... 'the same feminine ethos was present - empathetic camaraderie and bawdy humor on good days, and histrionic dramas coupled with meddling, malicious gossip on bad days.' She tells us about Mother's Day in jail when 'About eighty percent of the women in U.S. prisons have children.' She tells us that 'no one on the outside can really appreciate the galvanizing effect of all the regimented rituals' that create the institutionalized inmate. There were tough times (especially when her grandmother died) but also some good ones. Throughout, Piper is candid about her experiences and her own strengths and weaknesses.

What impressed me most is how the author dealt with such a negative experience in a positive manner, and learned from it. She tells us she shared with the other women 'a deep reserve of humor, creativity in adverse circumstances, and the will to protect and maintain our own humanity despite the prison system's imperative to crush it.' Getting to know her fellow inmates (many of them there because of drug addiction) made her 'finally recognize the indifferent cruelty' of what she had done in her twenties. Though she acknowledges she failed to be a good girl, Piper learned she was a good person and found other women 'in prison who could teach me how to be better.' Her story is indeed a fascinating one.

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