When someone says the word, “prison,” of what do you think?
Cold stone brick walls, monotonous grey decor, slop for breakfast, lunch and dinner and bread and water only if you’re lucky, sexual assault, violence, conflict between prisoners and prison guards, fights between prisoners themselves, bad egos, bad tempers, bad body odour, unshaven legs, poor living conditions, little opportunity for socializing and gaining skills while doing time, the stamp of negative stigma, sickness easily spread, male dominance, sex in extremely unsanitary places, dark hallways, small boarded up windows, people with severe psychological disabilities and, well, terrifying serial killers a short walk away.
Those are all the things that come to my mind when I think of what it would be like to do time behind bars, whether for life or for a short period of time.
Perhaps I’ve developed this negative image of being “locked up, they won’t let me out,” because of the music I listen to (Note: I am not an Akon fan, for the record), the stories I hear on the news, the investigative journalism books I have read (Ah, Stevie Cameron’s The Pickton File being one of my personal favourite pieces – filled with information, answers and incredible writing) and the overall perception of jail itself.
I remember being told when I was little that jail was a scary place and I had to be good in life or else I’d end up there, cold and alone, living the rest of my life like that short scene in Aladdin when old-man Jafar lurks around the corner lookin’ all scary.
And then, along came Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman, now a Netflix original series and a New York Times bestseller, a memoir of the author’s reckless history of delivering a suitcase full of drug money 10-years prior to her conviction into the federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut. Piper went from career focused to inmate #11187–424, all with the support of her loving boyfriend and family.
The book’s synopsis doesn’t say anything about the story being raw, rude and ridiculously accurate to everything we’ve seen on TV that resembles life in jail. Instead, it says:
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.
“A rare look,” indeed.
I finished reading Orange is the New Black last week. The entire time I was reading the book, I kept thinking something climatic was going to happen – something so drastic that the memoir’s collection of rather positive prison experiences (eating contraband food in the sight of prison guards while watching chick flicks, throwing surprise birthday parties for fellow inmates, getting to spend quite a lot of time outside, having the chance to work, workout, listen to music and still get subscriptions to magazines like The New Yorker, etc. etc.) was going to make my preconceived notion of how poor prison life actually is seem that more accurate. I was ready to be completely blown away at how horrible Piper’s experience was.
Instead, I was kept on a steady high of “Keep reading. Just because Piper hasn’t walked into an absurdly violent situation, yet, doesn’t mean she won’t in the next chapter.” (No, this does not mean I wish anyone in prison to have or have had awful experiences).
And then, I was done the book
Whether this says that Piper’s editor was a bit worried about revealing all the nasty, dark things that happen in prison or whether Piper actually had a decent experience behind bars, I can try to appreciate why the author decided to portray her experiences more positively.
Instead of focusing on all the negative that we so commonly know about prison, Piper changed my perspective of jail from “Equivalent to Hell” to “I could survive in there,” with her unique tell-all-tale of her time in a federal correctional facility. And unique is what the Orange is the New Black synopsis promised.
Do I agree with writing with such positivity? Meh. I can defend both sides.
Showing the good as opposed to the bad is not something we see every day. We hear stories of people twerking and catching on fire, people killing their fathers in self defense and being tried for murder at the age of 14 and innocent public transit commuters being crushed and killed because of careless driving. Focusing on the positive aspects of spending 15-months or more in a federal prison allows readers to understand that even though an individual may be serving time for an act of wrong-doing, they are also still able to have good days and learning experiences because of the interesting people from all different walks of life sharing the same ugly, grey cubicle.
With that being said, though, I am concerned with the idea that reading this book will teach others that going against the law is not as bad as authoritative figures make it seem, because if a middle-aged, middle-class white woman can do it, then so can they. Does “being bad” really need an added cool factor?
I haven’t started watching the Netflix series, and I’m not sure if I will. For one thing, I know that if I start watching all the TV shows I have been told to watch in past few years, I will never have time to read or blog. For another, I should probably watch better TV (I like The Vampire Diaries and Teen Mom, does that make my opinion of Orange is the New Black worth less than it already is?)
Have you read the memoir by Piper? If so, what did you think?