Many of you may be familiar with Piper Kerman’s story but I’ll give you a quick summary: in 1993, 24 year old Piper smuggled money for her then-girlfriend who was involved in an international drug ring. Following the money smuggling incident, she cut off all ties to the people involved and got started on a new life. However, her past caught up to her and Piper was indicted for her involvement in 1998. Six years later, in 2004, she was sent to Danbury, a minimum-security facility to serve 15 months. Piper ended up serving 13 months, and detailed her experience in this book.
It is important to keep in mind that Kerman, being a young white woman from a fairly privileged background, had a different experience than many women that go to prison in our society. To her credit, Piper confronts this issue head-on, comparing her experience to those that were not afforded the same luxuries, by bringing to light the many injustices of incarceration. She discusses issues such as racism, prison labor, living conditions, inconsistencies in our court system and issues with drug sentencing. One of the most troubling concerns exposed in this memoir was the lack of preparation these women received for re-entry into society. The re-entry classes- required of the inmates close to their release date- were not realistic for most of the women in the detention center. Kerman described one such class about housing, which taught the women how to buy a house, instead of educating about resources such as homeless shelters or how to find an apartment. Many incarcerated people have little money and an inconsistent support system before they enter the system, but finding safe and affordable housing as a formerly incarcerated individual after being released, can quickly become a literal life or death situation.
This book was the inspiration for the television show of the same name, which I have not watched. However, I did a little research and found that the show is quite different from the book, something I found disappointing but not surprising. My hope is that viewers of the show are able to learn as much as I have about the workings of the American prison system.
I listened to the audio form of this book, and the conversational nature of the reader helped me really feel like I was listening to Piper telling me her story. The narrator, Cassandra Campbell, did a great job with various accents Kerman describes of her friends. I was able to discern who was talking simply from the sound of their voice, which really added a lot to the experience for me. I highly recommend this novel for it’s informal, yet educational writing and insight into the American prison system.