Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Woman's Prison
Piper Kerman, 2010
With a career, a boyfriend, and a loving family, Piper Kerman barely resembles the reckless young woman who delivered a suitcase of drug money ten years before. But that past has caught up with her.
Convicted and sentenced to fifteen months at the infamous federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut, the well-heeled Smith College alumna is now inmate #11187–424—one of the millions of people who disappear “down the rabbit hole” of the American penal system. From her first strip search to her final release, Kerman learns to navigate this strange world with its strictly enforced codes of behavior and arbitrary rules.
She meets women from all walks of life, who surprise her with small tokens of generosity, hard words of wisdom, and simple acts of acceptance. Heartbreaking, hilarious, and at times enraging, Kerman’s story offers a rare look into the lives of women in prison—why it is we lock so many away and what happens to them when they’re there.
The film adaptation was produced by Netflix and released in 2013. (From the publisher.)
• Where—Boston, Massachusetts, USA
• Education—B.A., Smith College
Piper Kerman is an American memoirist whose experiences in prison provided the basis for the comedy-drama series Orange Is the New Black.
Kerman was born in 1970 in Boston into a family with many doctors, attorneys and educators and graduated from Smith College in 1992. A self-described WASP, in 1993 she entered into a romantic relationship with Nora Jansen, a woman who dealt heroin for a West African kingpin. Kerman laundered money for the drug operation.
In 1998, Kerman was indicted for money laundering and drug trafficking and subsequently pled guilty. Beginning in 2004, she served 13 months of a 15 month sentence at FCI Danbury, a minimum security prison located in Danbury, Connecticut.
At present, Kerman is vice president of a Washington, D.C.–based communications firm that works with foundations and nonprofits. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Kerman published her best-selling memoir about her experiences in prison, Orange Is the New Black, in 2010. An adaptation of the same name by Jenji Kohan, the Emmy award-winning creator of Weeds, debuted in July 2013 exclusively on Netflix. Kerman's analogue on the series ("Piper Chapman") is played by Taylor Schilling. (From Wikipedia.)
Kerman neither sentimentalizes nor lectures. She keeps the details of her despair to a minimum along with her discussion of the outrages of the penal system, concentrating instead on descriptions of her direct experiences, both harrowing and hilarious, and the personalities of the women who shared them with her.
Kerman puts us inside, from the first strip search...to the prison-issue unwashed underwear to the cucumbers and raw cauliflower that count as salad.... This book is impossible to put down because she could be you. Or your best friend. Or your daughter.
Los Angeles Times
Orange transcends the memoir genre's usual self-centeredness to explore how human beings can always surprise you. You'd expect bad behavior in prison. But it's the moments of joy, friendship and kindness that the author experienced that make Orange so moving and lovely…You sense [Kerman] wrote Orange to make readers think not about her but her fellow inmates. And, boy, does she succeed.
Ten years after a fleeting post-Smith College flirtation with drug trafficking, Piper Kerman was arrested–a P.O.W. in the war on drugs. In Orange Is the New Black, Kerman presents–devoid of self-pity, and with novelistic flair–life in the clink as less Caged Heat and more Steel Magnolias.
Relying on the kindness of strangers during her year's stint at the minimum security correctional facility in Danbury, Conn., Kerman...found that federal prison wasn't all that bad. In fact, she made good friends doing her time among the other women, many street-hardened drug users.... Kerman's ordeal indeed proved life altering.
Kerman finds herself submerged in the unique and sometimes overwhelming culture of prison.... Kerman quickly learns the rules...and carves a niche for herself even as she witnesses the way the prison system fails those who are condemned to it, many of them nonviolent drug offenders. An absorbing, meditative look at life behind bars. —Kristine Huntley
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:
• How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
• Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
• Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)
Also, consider these LitLovers talking points to start a discussion for Orange is the New Black:
1. Talk about Piper Kerman. What do you think of her? Does she deserve the sentence she received?
2. How would you describe the prison culture—its hierarchy and values. What must Piper learn in order to adapt to, or even survive, prison life? Discuss about how Piper's relationships changed—both inside the prison walls and outside prison.
3. Do you have favorites among the inmates? Least favorites? Are there any inmates you come to admire? if so, why? Are there inmates who don't deserve to be in prison?
4. Talk about the relationship of the inmates with the guards and prison authorities.
5. In many ways, this is a coming-of-age story. What are the ways in which prison changes Piper? What does she come to learn about who she is?
6. Has reading Orange Is the New Black altered your views of the criminal justice system? Or does the memoir basically confirm what you believed?
7. Why is being sent to prison frequently referred to as "disappearing down the rabbit hole"?
8. Does our criminal justice system work? Does prison work? If you could, what would you change about the legal and/or the prison system?
9. Watch the Netflix film adaptation—either selected clips or in its entirety. How does it compare with the book?
10. Talk about homosexuality, both in Piper's life and as it exists in prison.
(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)
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