To fulfill my summer reading bingo square entitled “a book made into a TV show,” I got an audio book of Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman, read by Cassandra Campbell. I’ve seen a few seasons of the Netflix show but lost interest when I couldn’t keep all the characters straight over a year while waiting for the next season. Plus, it was drama, drama, drama. I taught college classes in prison, I’ve worked with volunteers on the last leg of their sentence, and I have an incarcerated pen pal. Everyone seems to agree: in prison, you try to keep your head down and mind your business — completely contrary to what Netflix feeds its viewers. And I do have a general concern about sensationalized prison shows that take viewers “inside.” I picked up Orange is the New Black in particular to get another perspective of an individual’s actual experience in the penal system, an area of reading important to me.
The memoir is nothing like the show. While you see plotting, scheming, and bullying on the show, you get hugs, foot rubs, and sharing snacks from the commissary when one prisoner is has no money in the memoir. If anything, Kerman’s thirteen-month prison stint felt like a college dormitory more than a prison. Sure, there are disrespectful guards — and it’s unforgivable that some guards squeeze the prisoners’ breasts during pat down — but Kerman’s experiences couldn’t be argued a fair representation of “real prison,” which even her fellow inmates who have done decades and were moved to the minimum security facility in their last year remind her.
I won’t say that Kerman’s white skin and blond hair was the focus of my experience, though many readers do. It’s obvious that she’s privileged, that the guards and administration treat her more kindly because she doesn’t look like a stereotype. I noticed, instead, the way she failed to understand trans women. Claiming Vanessa smelled like a man, and had arm pit hair like a man, and would use her “man voice” when she wanted attention delegitimizes Vanessa’s existence as a trans woman. Kerman compares Vanessa to “those of us born women.” I will make concessions for the time period. Incarcerated in 2004, and publishing Orange is the New Black in 2010, Kerman may not have known about acceptable language when writing about trans people. Still, it stands out in 2019.
In addition, Kerman was quite the fat shamer. Though she never guessed the weights of her thin prison mates, she never hesitated to take a stab at anyone who appeared over 200 lbs. One fat, middle-aged lesbian had many young, thin lovers, and Kerman said she tried to figure out why the thin lovers didn’t make fun of the fat woman behind her back — suggesting that it’s only natural to humiliate fat people. Perhaps it’s in her yuppie upbringing. Kerman’s friends and family congratulate her on her appearance during visitations when she immediately loses weight because the prison food is so poorly. But when her bunkies begin giving her snacks in thanks for times she fixes their appliances (Kerman is assigned to work in the electrical department), she reassures the readers that she did not get fat, because she ran at least miles each day.
The biggest flaw of the book is one that lulled me happily as a commuting audio book listener. In only two instances I can remember does Kerman reflect on her experiences, thinking about the bigger picture, choosing instead to tell, tell, tell what happened. This, and then this, and then this happened. And nothing much happens. This is the most mild prison you’ve ever heard of, likely because most women have two years or less to serve in a minimum security facility that has bunk beds instead of cells, no limits on how many books that can have, a hair salon run by inmates, etc. Sure, they gripe about the food, and some women use their headphones as speakers instead of putting them on their head. A few women are overzealous about religion, which irks Kerman. But no one goes to sleep next to a cellie staring at them in a wide-eyed, murderous sort of way and wakes in the middle of the night to that cellie trying to kill them with an oscillating fan. Being a shallow memoir made it easy to listen, drive, and focus.
While Kerman’s memoir made prison seem easy, if not boring, she represents women as caring friends, eager mothers, and helpful. The Netflix show makes inmates look the worst stereotype of catty women. Overall, it’s not a great read, Orange is the New Black. Here is a list of prison memoirs and books about prison you may wish to check out instead:
- Writing My Wrongs by Shaka Senghor
- Prison Baby by Deborah Jiang Stein
- The Prison Book Club by Ann Walmsley
- An American Radical by Susan Rosenberg
- Assata by Assata Shakur
- Inside this Place, Not of It by Ayelet Waldman
- Liberating Minds by Ellen Condliffe Lagemann
- College in Prison by Daniel Karpowitz
- Running the Books by Avi Steinberg