January 20, 2014

Orange is the New Black -- Read the book!

Taylor Schilling plays Piper Kerman in the TV series
Hollywood prison scenes are so revolting. Most revolting are the depictions of women’s prisons. They superimpose onto female prisoners the worst stereotype of male prisoners as hulking, sexually aggressive brutes. And, even more so than for male prisons, the public has little direct information to counter this distorted image.

Blasting apart this image is Piper Kerman’s outstanding memoir. Detailing her year in a minimum-security federal camp, Orange is the New Black is a first-rate effort to educate the public about the realities of women’s prison.

Promo for blockbuster Netflix spinoff
Kerman tiptoed into prison with the trepidation one might expect of a white, college-educated woman thrown into the lion’s den. But instead of prisoner-on-prisoner predation, she found a sense of community, where women survived by forging family-like relationships among their “tribes.” The greatest dangers in prison came not at the hands of other women, Kerman found, but from the agents of bureaucracy who wielded the threat of the SHU* (Security Housing Unit) or loss of good-time credits for any petty misstep.

I found myself grateful that, once in a blue moon, a middle-class person with a social conscience is sent to prison. Kerman’s bad luck is the public’s fortune. With the overwhelming mass of prisoners voiceless, who else can speak the truth and be heard? Kerman is the everywoman; through recognizing ourselves in her, we feel the prisoner’s plight as our own.

Her sense of not belonging among the underclass was shared by correctional officers and prisoners alike, who more than once asked the blond-haired, blue-eyed Smith College graduate: “What’s someone like you doing in a place like this?!”

Laverne Cox as trans prisoner Sophia Burset
Don’t think that if you’ve seen the blockbuster TV spinoff, you know the story. While colorful, the series is by comparison shallow and exploitive. Netflix does a public service by counteracting Hollywood’s crude stereotypes, portraying incarcerated women as diverse human beings, but the semi-fictional show’s biggest accomplishment may be to steer intelligent viewers toward the book. (As an aside, it has also given greater visibility to the issues of transgender women of color, with trans actress Laverne Cox outstanding in the role of a transwoman prisoner.)

For a real-life visual representation of the lot of the woman prisoner, I recommend the documentary Crime After Crime. The story of battered woman Debbie Peagler’s struggle for justice is far more heart-wrenching than Kerman’s memoir, but both dramatize how a soulless bureaucratic machine chews up and spits out human potential.

The real-life Piper Kerman
Kerman is a fluid story-teller, and her saga is intrinsically gripping. But, as writer Mary Karr points out in a recent interview, the "through-line" of an effective memoir is the character’s transformation. Seeing herself through the eyes of other women in the bleak prison milieu, Kerman realizes virtues in herself that she never knew. And she confronts for the first time her own complicity in her comrades' oppression, through her former role as an international heroin smuggler.

The sincerity of Kerman’s transformation is evident in her life since leaving prison nine years ago. She serves on the board of the non-profit prison reform group Women’s Prison Association and does public education on the plight of women prisoners -- especially the two-thirds who are mothers -- through influential media outlets such as National Public Radio. As she writes in a recent op-ed in the New York Times:  
"Harshly punitive drug laws and diminishing community mental health resources have landed many women in prison who simply do not belong there, often for shockingly long sentences. What is priceless about JusticeHome, however, is that it is working not only to rehabilitate women but to keep families together -- which we know is an effective way to reduce crime and to stop a cycle that can condemn entire families to the penal system."

* * * * *

*I listened to the audiobook version. The reader was quite good. Her only false steps came in reading the word "SHU": She read it aloud as "S-H-U," instead of the way it is actually pronounced in prison ("shoe"). The SHU is too ubiquitous to merit three syllables at every utterance.

(c) Copyright Karen Franklin 2014 - All rights reserved

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