Monday, 22 July 2013

A charming and sober look inside a women's prison in Orange Is The New Black

From The Week of July 15th, 2013

Civilization has always required prisons, a means by which to segregate the disobedient, the disharmonious and the dysfunctional from mainstream society. After all, if such chaotic elements were allowed to freely roam, they would diminish not only the people's belief in the rule of law, but they would promote a kind of anarchic individualism that would make governing all but impossible. The state needs conformity. It can operate no other way. And so we gather up the offenders of society's codes, everyone from thieves to rapists, and we shut them away until they have ostensibly learned their lessons, until the deprivation of their liberty has scared them straight. We do this, paying only passing heed to the circumstances that encouraged them to commit their crimes in the first place. We do this, little knowing the costs, in coin and in futures, we waste. This Ms. Kerman conveys in her charming and disturbing memoir.

Piper Kerman received an excellent education; she was nurtured by a successful and caring family; and she possessed an intellect capable of propelling her to the heights of her society. But none of this abrogated her sense of adventure, her desire to color outside the narrow lines proscribed by her gender and her class. Which is how she entered into a consequential infatuation with Nora, an older but not necessarily wiser woman who used the funds earned from her position as a member of an international drug ring to take Ms. Kerman to the world's most exotic locales where the pair could live, explore and enjoy life. Such a heady existence is not built to last though, a fact ms. Kerman realized soonafter foolishly agreeing to help her partner launder money through a European airport.

This fateful decision would not only accelerate the end of her relationship with Nora, it would lead to agents from the US Customs Service turning up on her doorstep two years later, charging her with Moneylaundering and insisting that she tell them everything she knew about the then collapsing drug ring. Shocked to have her past come back to haunt her, Ms. Kerman engaged in a five-year-long odyssey to fight the charges, but her battle was ultimately a losing one, leading to a plea agreement that would see her spend thirteen months in a minimum security women's prison in the American northeast. Though she would ultimately serve far less time than many of her fellow inmates, these thirteen months would have a profound impact on Ms. Kerman, her friends, her family and her fiance. And they would forever reshape her idea of prison and the heavy toll it takes on all those who come in contact with it.

A breezy memoir, full of amusing anecdotes and rueful revelations, Orange Is The New Black is an entertaining and enlightening chronicle of life in a women's prison. Ms. Kerman, who has since gone on to work for a non-profit, has a keen eye for detail, a sympathetic heart that bleeds for her fellow inmates, and a rare degree of self-awareness that leads her to be honest about her flaws and her foibles. This combination of talent and integrity quickly earns the reader's respect and confidence. For this is no self-justifying polemic against the state. This is no screed of self-denial that seeks to blame everyone but the blamer. This is an earnest catalogue of both her own shortcomings and those of the penal system that so briefly captured her, a fact which elevates this work out of the mire of the self-reverential and into the world of the societally useful.

Though Ms. Kerman primarily focuses on the day-to-day grind of prison life, she does not avoid some biting social commentary. She is deeply critical of the harsh sentences, required by America's system of Mandatory Minimums, that end up burdening marginal criminals with debilitating stretches of time. She does not deny that there are violent women who have earned their segregation, but these individuals are few when compared to the legion of women ensnared in the criminal enterprises established by boyfriends, husbands, fathers, and brothers. These opinions are no doubt colored by Ms. Kerman's sympathies, but this in no way invalidates her overarching point, that the sentences for nonviolent drug offenders are extreme, disproportionate, and profoundly shattering. They not only disconnect these women, 80 percent of whom are mothers, from their families, they wrench them out of society, compelling them to forever exist outside the margins where only a handful of social crusaders care to even notice them.

Orange Is The New Black is by no means flawless. While it has little of the sensationalism or salaciousness one might expect from such work -- a truth for which we should be grateful --, it exposes a certain self-involvement on the part of the author. Very little actually happens to Ms. Kerman during her time locked away. And yet every detail of her stay is picked apart. This is a benefit, in that it reveals the degree to which prison is essentially enforced tedium, but it also leaves us to occasionally wonder if this is a worthwhile exercise.

Notwithstanding its occasional missteps, however, this is engaging work that, while light on policy recommendations, certainly confirms the suspicions that the penal system, as practiced by western society, is deeply flawed. And through the lives and experiences of these women, we come to understand that in the most intimate of manners. (3/5 Stars)

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