Wow. Wow just wow. This book is a stunning collection of stories and tit-bits from the delightful Piper Kerman following her time in jail after a suspended jail sentence. I bought this book after seeing a review on wordpress that I really enjoyed. Before seeing the review I actually had no idea that this television series had been created from a book! Added to the fact that I was desperate to watch the television series currently airing on Netflix I couldn’t help but settle down to read.
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 behaviour 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 book for me was a surprising read; I thought that the book would be a story with a definite plot that weaved through creating anticipation to a final climax, (this was mostly due to it being made into a television show!) I was completely wrong and if I’m honest I’m glad I was. The book is a better book than I could have expected with no added drama and no over the top embellishments. It is an account of the correctional system from an insider’s perspective detailing the difficulties, the stories and the dreams of the prisoners that Kerman finds herself in the company of. Through the book we learn of Kerman’s treacherous past after getting involved in the drugs trade through a girlfriend. This comes back to haunt her and Piper is convicted and sentenced. After ten years, she is finally sent to the correctional facility in Danbury where she is met with a host of lively and understanding convicts. Among the bunch is the Piper’s bunkie, the quiet and serious Natalie that keeps their cube spotless, Little Janet the endearing friend that Piper grows extremely close to and Pop, a mothering figure that after a couple of months takes Piper under her wing. Down for a number of sentences (although all are for minor crimes for fraud or drug smuggling rather than violence) Piper learns from them and many others how to deal with the difficult situation she is in and learns the system of how to get by in this new world.
The main strength in the book is found in the little anecdotes or sketches of the ways that the prisoners get through their sentences by stretching the rules. These include a number of things such as decorations on birthdays, movie nights and pedicures. Piper describes the strong rivalry between two of the woman that have their own pedicure ‘salons’ in their cubes and the way in which each of the prisoners is equally viciously loyal. She also describes the contraband food; with a tiny microwave the prisoners would raid food from the dining hall to use for cooking projects such as corn chips made into mash by adding water and chilaquiles a prison delicacy. By the end of the book Piper is excellent at creating the contraband prison pudding, cheesecake. Additionally stories include the way in which prisoners offer to make the newbie’s beds and how many of the prisoners crochet different products with skill and dexterity. The book is full of titbits of life in the prison and the way in which the ladies find pleasure in the smallest of effects in which to get by. The characters are well described and each has a story to tell. The book weaves between each of them giving them a way of talking and telling their story and shows us how each of them enables Piper to grow and find herself in such a destructive and all-consuming setting. I don’t want to give too much away so read the book!
Many have argued in reviews that the book is superficial and false; many argue that although Piper maintains through the book that she was innocent she must have known what she was doing when she was committing the crime. However, to me, through the book Piper acknowledges that through her crimes she has ultimately been providing the drugs trade that has put so many of her fellow prisoners and friends behind bars for so many years. I thought that through the book Piper begins to fully understand the extent her crime has affected not only her, but also the addicts around her, and by the end she is fully able to repent and feel humble that she has paid her price. Additionally I felt the strength in the book came in Piper’s strength; she did not whine or complain but took her punishment with understanding and tried to fit in accordingly. Additionally, some have complained that it seems odd that her family and noticeably Larry’s family (her fiancé) adjusted so easily to her being in prison and came to visit her often. I would argue that unless we have been in her exact situation then it is difficult to comment fairly. None of us know the way in which our family or our partner’s family would react in such a situation; I know that if it were me I would want the constant support that Kerman has and this book only shows the importance of family and support to prisoners when in prison. Additionally Kerman uses the book as a way of describing the problems in prisons mostly to do with the lack of support for the prisoners that have boyfriends or partners in jail, and prisoners that try and re-enter society after their sentence. In the acknowledgements it discusses the work that Kerman is now doing to help female prisoners to gain jobs and housing after finishing their sentence, which is excellent. Kerman states throughout the book that she was one of the lucky ones, with good support and somewhere to go after prison. Many do not get that chance. This book is a brilliant compilation of wit, humour, defeat, and hope. I hope that Kerman realises her dream of helping these women in the future and continues to make a positive effect on the rehabilitation of such prisoners.