Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Orange is the New Black

A nonfiction book!  What a change of pace!  For those who have seen the television series about life in a women’s prison, this is the book its loosely based on.  To sum it up very quickly:  well-to-do white girl goes to federal prison on an old drug charge, makes friends, and influences people.

There are some eye-opening pieces of information here.  That the federal system can move so slowly, to the point that people who have reformed themselves are doing time for charges in their relative youths.  Piper Kerman, the author, waited for six years to find out the disposition for her case!  The crimes she committed were ten years old when she entered prison.  It all seems a bit ridiculous.

For the actual time in prison – there were a lot of astute observations, and they were blended in to the general story well enough.  Nothing came across as preachy or as having an agenda, except for Kerman’s opinion on the US’s war on drugs, which I think is one gaining more and more traction of late.

As an piece of writing – I wasn’t terribly impressed.  Pretty average stuff, really.  It was a bit hard to follow a timeline.  Something would sound endless, and then you’d realize it was a day or two. People were introduced in a way that made you think you should know who they were, when it was really the first time they’d been talked about.  Little trip-ups like that.

I will admit, one aspect of the book rubbed me the wrong way.  I’m sure Kerman was only trying to demonstrate how her perspective cannot be said to be an average one.  That she had more resources than most people, both in dealing with the legal aspects of her case and in making prison life more bearable.  But she comes across as weirdly boastful many times:  I had so many visitors.  My family still loved me despite everything.  I had hundreds of books mailed to me.  These hard-boiled women procured numerous difficult-to-find things for me because I was so awesome.  My friend created an executive job in his business so I could work post-release.  It got a little old after a while, although I am sure it was not done with deliberate intent.  It also read to me as Kerman knowing she was privileged, but still possibly not aware of just how privileged.

Final call:

I actually brush up to similar issues (what is the purpose of prison, do nonviolent people really belong there, how much rehabilitation should occur, how can people reintegrate in society) in my day job, and while Kerman’s story is interesting, the questions it raises are really pretty basic now.  I’m happy to say that, looking back over the 10 years since the book was published, there has been plenty of public policy debate about these questions.  Unfortunately, it seems to be because we can’t afford to put more people in prison, not because people see a better way to deal with crime and punishment.

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