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The Heart in Orange Is the New Black

Revolution #331, March 3, 2014

If you aren't one of the many, many people who have read Orange Is the New Black or watched the Netflix series (or done both) let me start with the basic story behind this best-selling book and critically acclaimed TV show.

Piper Kerman grew up in a family with lots of doctors, lawyers, and teachers. She graduated from Smith College in 1992—a college she says was "full of smart and dynamic women." Then, as she wrote in her book:

"I was finished with what was required of me by birth and background. I had chafed within the safe confines of Smith, graduating by a narrow margin, and I longed to experience, experiment, investigate. It was time for me to live my own life. I was a well-educated young lady from Boston with a thirst for bohemian counterculture and no clear plan. But I had no idea what to do with all my pent-up longing for adventure, or how to make my eagerness to take risks productive. No scientific or analytical bent was evident in my thinking—what I valued was artistry and effort and emotion. I got an apartment with a fellow theater grad and her nutty artist girlfriend, and a job waiting tables at a microbrewery. I bonded with fellow waitrons, bartenders, and musicians, all equally nubile and constantly clad in black. We worked, we threw parties, we went skinny-dipping or sledding, we fucked, sometimes we fell in love. We got tattoos."

What happened next dramatically changed Kerman's life. She became romantically involved with a woman working for a West African drug lord and transported money for the drug operation a couple of times. Soon after this, she broke up with the woman, left the whole scene, and "went on with her life." Kerman started a small business with a friend; developed a relationship with a guy and moved in with him. Then five years later, in 1998, the Feds knocked on her door, informing her she had been indicted for money laundering and drug trafficking. Kerman ended up pleading guilty. In 2004 she began serving 13 months of a 15-month sentence. Orange Is the New Black is the story of her experiences at the women's minimum security prison located in Danbury, Connecticut.

Reality—In- and Outside

Kerman told one interviewer:

"What I don't know is how it feels to serve a 20 year sentence or to be wrongfully convicted. I did commit my crime, I plead guilty. I take responsibility for my actions. But there are people in this country who are serving sometimes very lengthy sentences for crimes they didn't commit. It's my experience and it's my perspective. You know, I'm a white woman and I'm a middle class woman, if you look at the statistics of who is in prison, it's definitely not generally people like me. There were other middle-class white women in prison with me, for sure, but still the vast majority of folks come from really vulnerable communities that don't have a lot of voice, and those people were an integral part of my life, so I feel confident about talking about the intersection of my own life with those folks, but I don't speak for them. They need the opportunity to speak for themselves." (Annaliese Griffin)

Of course, there are limitations to Kerman's story. This is, after all, just one person's experience in prison. Plus she was in a minimum security facility; and in a woman's prison, which has similarities, but also differences from men's prisons.

But Kerman gives us a deep and intimate look at the women she was in prison with and in this way opens a window into the lives of millions in this country.

Kerman points out that while the statistics about mass incarceration in the U.S. are shocking, this alone doesn't tell the whole story. Indeed, numbers only scratch the surface of the actual human suffering and life-long scars. Kerman says, "Although the stats around our current prison system are staggering and when you see things like one in 100 Americans behind bars and one in 31 in the system as a whole including prison and parole—those are eye-opening numbers. But they don't completely tell the story and I think it's easier for folks to really care about an issue in the first place if they understand it on that level. Then those statistics mean even more." (Liliana Segura)

It's hard not to read or watch Orange Is the New Black without really caring a lot about the characters and what happens to them. But it's not some kind of one-dimensional story where everything is clearly defined; unrealistically black and white, good and bad, right and wrong. There's a lot of complexity here, as in real life. You learn about the difficulty of navigating prison life where Kerman encounters all kinds of people. Some have been abused, some are addicts, others are mentally unstable, some have a lot of fucked-up ideas, they sometimes treat each other really badly. And everyone's all crowded together in horrendous, cruel conditions they have no control over.

The book gives us a few hints about the lives the women led before landing in prison. But as Kerman explains, one of the first rules is you don't ask anyone what they're in for. In the Netflix series there's a lot more back-story to the characters that has been fictionally added. And you find yourself aching and cringing as these characters struggle to keep their dignity—in an absolutely irrational institution which is designed to strip people of their very humanity.

Kerman lets us into this world, telling tales with real heart and important insights. This is especially true in the Netflix series where Kerman has been a writer of some of the episodes. Poetic license has been used in the TV shows to not only develop the complexity and richness of the more than 25 characters in prison, but to also get at some real truth about the bigger circumstances that land people behind bars.

** Spoiler Alert **

As is brought out in the book, some women are doing time because of the criminal activities of their husbands and boyfriends. There's the toll the war on drugs has taken—women doing long sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. In the TV series you meet Piper's bunkmate, Miss Claudette, who came to the U.S., forced into child labor to pay off a family debt, and then ends up herself running an illegal child labor cleaning service. There's Nicky, a former drug addict, and Sophia, a transgender woman who committed credit card fraud to finance her operation and hormone therapy. "Pennsatucky" Doggett was a meth-head when she got an abortion and then murdered a clinic worker who dissed her. The anti-abortionists then took up "her cause" and Pennsatucky is now a religious lunatic, trying to "heal" and convert everyone in prison. Sister Ingalls is a nun who, in the book, is a political prisoner serving a long federal sentence for protesting at a Minuteman II missile silo. In the TV series, she really doesn't like Doggett's brand of religious fundamentalism. Some prisoners have straight-out racist views, like Flaca who believes Black people cannot float because of their bone density, which prompts another inmate to call her Flacaca.

These characters, and more, are developed with a slow pace in the TV show. They're used to create densely layered, complex, and, at the same time, highly entertaining and sometimes very funny storylines—that are in many ways subversive to the mainstream message that people in prison are violent animals who need to be locked up to keep people on the outside safe. And they also touch on interesting, important issues in society.

One of my favorite characters is Suzanne "Crazy Eyes." She is mentally unstable and right away develops an obsession with Piper, wanting to be her wife. Initially you might just think this woman is totally insane, but as you get to know her (in the series), you find a much more complex person. She recites literature and poetry, sometimes Shakespeare, and writes her own verses. There is a kind and thoughtful side to her—at one point she helps Piper make amends with another inmate. Sometimes she gets very frustrated, hitting herself on the head and calling herself "stupid." Other times she seems somewhat aware of her own mental state, even reflecting on it out loud to others. She explains to Piper why she likes to mop the bathroom floors: "Sometimes the ceilings inside me get messy like dirt. And I like to clean things. And the dirt is the feelings. This floor is my mind. That is called coping." Apparently she was adopted since she is Black and in the visiting room, we see her parents, who are both white. At one point, we find out from her what it's like in the prison psych ward—the brutality inflicted on prisoners, how they are strapped to beds, shot up with meds, and basically tortured. You really get a sense of someone struggling hard to maintain their humanity against a heartless death-machine. It really makes you ask: What kind of a system treats people with mental illness by locking them up and torturing them?

Sophia Burset, a character who breaks your heart, is a transgender woman in prison for credit card fraud. She used to be a firefighter named Marcus, but was unhappy as a man and with the support of her wife, she became a woman. There are all kinds of difficult emotions Sophia has to navigate. Her wife is supportive and visits Sophia in prison, but also wants to move on with her life. Sophia's son is angry about his father's decision to become a woman and won't visit her. Meanwhile, Sophia has to fight with prison officials who are denying her hormone treatments.

A favorite line of mine in the Netflix show (but not the book) is when "Pennsatucky" tries to baptize Chapman (the Piper character) and Chapman says: "I cannot get behind some supreme being who weighs in on the Tony Awards while a million people get whacked with machetes. I don't believe a billion Indians are going to hell, I don't think we get cancer to learn life lessons, and I don't believe that people die young because God needs another angel. I think it's just bullshit, and on some level, I think we all know that."

Up Against Oz

Kerman is asked in one interview, "So why did you want to write this book?" and she says: "When I came home, everyone wanted to know what I had experienced and what I had seen. But [what they wanted to hear was] my personal story of being in prison—which is just my story, right? I don't purport to speak for all prisoners by any stretch, but my story relates back to the lives of millions of Americans. We imprison more people than any other country in the world; there are almost 2½ million Americans in prison right now. And obviously all those people have families and communities around them. You're talking about millions and millions of Americans who my story relates to. My story isn't identical, but it is very relevant. So I think if readers have a more direct understanding of what goes on there, I think that's something that would help people maybe think a little differently about what prisons are or are not useful for." (Melissa Rose Bernardo)

Kerman also says, "My own experience was, in many ways, dramatically different from the popular conception and prevailing narrative about prison: who's there, why they're there, and what life there is like." She says, "The popular image of prison, Oz and Cops, is very narrow—and intended to justify the strengths of the prison system and its out-of-control growth.... But if in fact everyone in prison is not irredeemably violent, if their lives have meaning and value, then suddenly you really call into question whether our government is doing the right thing. It's important for people who have been prisoners to have a voice, and to say in a more authentic way what life is really like. Otherwise, someone else is telling our story." (Whitney Joiner)

The fact is, Kerman herself went through a process of transforming her own thinking when she went to prison. And if you read the book, this becomes very clear. In other words, here she was, a woman who would have, most likely, never come into much contact with the kind of women she ended up living with and becoming friends with in prison. She herself had a lot of preconceived notions and prejudices—affected by all the bullshit put out in the mainstream media about "criminals." She tried to do "research" in preparation for going to prison, which of course didn't prepare her at all for what she encountered. But the human experience and the connections she made, deeply affected her and in some ways helped sustain her.This is what comes out very strongly in Kerman's book.

People on the bottom of society, who are systematically demonized and dismissed by politicians and in popular culture; who are put behind bars and then made "invisible;" whose torture is justified by judges and wardens who call them the "worst of the worst"; who, we are told, should be kept imprisoned so that "people on the outside" can be safe—these are the kind of people we get to know some real truth about in Orange Is the New Black.

Kerman says some of her friends expected to hear about a lot of violence in prison, asking her things like, "Did you get beaten up every day?" She says, "There's definitely violence in prison, but it wasn't a central part of my own experience. I just felt like there's a much more complete and complex picture to be presented about who's in the prison, why they're there, and what happens." (Mary Elizabeth Williams)

In fact, a lot of bad shit does go down in prisons. First of all, there is the horrific violence against prisoners by guards that goes on all the time and as a matter of policy—where prisoners are subjected to beatdowns, sadistic cell extractions, and torturous solitary isolation. Then there is the violence that goes on between prisoners—especially in men's prisons. All of this is an extension of what goes on in society as a whole—and animosity and contradictions between people in society are heightened and fomented in prison by prison authorities. Shows like Oz and MSNBC's Lockup sensationalize all this to portray prisoners in a degrading way, as if they are nothing but irredeemable animals.

But here we do have to step back and ask: WHY does this kind of violence go on? What SYSTEM created the conditions that put these prisoners in such a situation? What are the conditions in society that lead so many to end up in prison—poverty, unemployment, lack of education, discrimination, and police brutality. What about this system that itself is the model of using violence all around the world to assert its dominance? And then there are the prison guards themselves who are known to consciously pit prisoners against each other, and get them to fight each other—sometimes for their own entertainment—sometimes pitting Black prisoners against white, and different gangs against each other, in order to maintain control.

The New Black

In the book, Kerman tells the story of her best friend sending her a newspaper clipping from a New York Times fashion column with photos of women all clad in brilliant orange with the headline "Oranginas Uncorked." A blue stickie attached said, "NYers wear orange in solidarity w/Piper's plight!" Kerman stuck the clipping inside her locker, noting that, apparently, "orange was the new black."

Kerman says the title of her book is a [fashion] play on the classic jumpsuit. But she also says it refers to the fact that women are the fastest-growing segment of the prison population in this country and that most of those rising prisoner numbers are women who are non-violent drug offenders. (Whitney Joiner)

Indeed, the imprisonment of women in the U.S. does concentrate something about the overall oppression of women. There are now more women behind bars than at any other point in U.S. history. With the introduction of mandatory sentencing to federal drug laws, the number of women in prison increased by 646 percent between 1980 and 2010, rising from over 15,000 to almost 113,000. Including women in local jails, more than 205,000 women are now incarcerated. As of 2010, more than 1 million women were under the supervision of the criminal justice system (prison, jail, probation or parole) and the number of women in prison had increased at nearly 1.5 times the rate of men. In 2010 Black women were incarcerated nearly 3 times the rate of white women; Latino women were imprisoned 1.6 times that of white women.

Women have in fact disproportionately been affected by the war on drugs—ending up in prison for the first time, mostly for non­violent convictions. The percentage of women incarcerated on street drug convictions has now surpassed that of men.

Many women have ended up in prison with very heavy sentences for very light involvement—or no involvement at all—in the drug trade. For example huge numbers of women are doing lots of time for "crimes" such as taking a phone message for someone who ends up accused of a drug crime. And many women end up in prison on conspiracy charges because of the testimony of boyfriends or husbands who won sentence reductions for themselves on the basis of this testimony. Ironically, the less involved a woman actually is, the less she has to offer prosecutors—the more likely she is to do serious time! (See "The Scandal of Women's Prisons... And the Shackles that Bind Half of Humanity.")

Kerman says in her book: "Most of the women in the Camp [Danbury] were poor, poorly educated, and came from neighborhoods where the mainstream economy was barely present and the narcotics trade provided the most opportunities for employment. Their typical offenses were for things like low-level dealing, allowing their apartments to be used for drug activity, serving as couriers, and passing messages, all for low wages. Small involvement in the drug trade could land you in prison for many years, especially if you had a lousy court-appointed lawyer."

There is the also the added hardship women with children face when they are incarcerated—and the fact is, most women in prison have children. Danbury, where Kerman was, had women who, in total, were mothers of at least 700 children. There are heart-wrenching scenes in Orange where Kerman talks about visiting day where children are trying to make brief, tearful connections with their mothers, how the room was "always filled with children doing their best to navigate their mother's sentences with grace and dignity." Or there is the scene in the TV show when a pregnant woman prisoner goes into labor and comes back after having her baby taken away from her. In fact, in real life, women can be shackled during labor and delivery in all but 13 states, and the majority of babies born to women in prison are immediately taken away.

Women in prison are often survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. Something like a third of the women in state prisons were raped before being incarcerated, and more than 50 percent of women in state prisons have been physically and sexually abused before their imprisonment. And then inside prisons, women prisoners are subjected to sexual abuse by guards, from patriarchal/sexist verbal abuse, to invasive body searches, groping, and improper visual surveillance while women bathe, to outright rape. You get a sense of all this in Orange.

There is also the theme that is more developed in the Netflix series, of the patriarchal, venomous hatred of lesbians. A prison supervisor, Sam Healy, tells Piper he supports cordoning off "butch" inmates to prevent lesbian relationships but couldn't get the idea approved. (In fact in Virginia, the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women actually did set up such a "butch wing," which was stopped after it created a fury.) Healy is on an irrational anti-lesbian mission to stamp out lesbian relations in the prison. Women inmates are told from the very first intake to not go "gay for the stay" and that they will be punished for having any physical contact with other women. At one point he throws Piper in solitary confinement just because she is dancing with another woman.

In speaking out against the injustices of mass incarceration, Kerman also talks about how racism runs rampant in the criminal justice system and the disparity in terms of who's in prison. "It's indefensible," she says, "In other words, if you are a poor person—and particularly a poor person of color—you're going to be treated differently in the criminal justice system."

In one interview Kerman said:

"There were literally hundreds of occasions where I thought, 'Is it possible that she did something so much worse than I did to get her seven or 10 years, or is it really about the color of her skin and poverty and the way that the system works?' ...Most people in prison are very poor, have not even a high school education, they've been sent to the worst schools, they have the worst health care. It's not a system that's being administered evenly between rich and poor and it's not a system that's a good solution for the problems of poverty. Basically what's happened over the past 30 years is that rather than addressing some of the problems of poverty, including crime, we've used prisons as our sole remedy." (Annaliese Griffin)

And Kerman knows that her situation was very different than what most women face when they get out of prison. She had a job, a place to live, a supportive family, money.

"Taystee" (in the Netflix series) gets out of prison. But she can't survive on the outside—she has no job, no place to stay, no way to survive. So she ends up committing a crime just so she can get sent back to prison to have three meals a day and a place to sleep.

Prison, Kerman says, is a kind of funnel where, "once you're in the system, it's just funneling you further and further down and restricting your choices further and further, including once you've done your time ... and the idea that personal responsibility is something that will solve the problems that we are currently using prisons to try to solve is ludicrous. I mean, it's a systemic problem. It's not an issue of personal responsibility." (Liliana Segura)

The reality and INJUSTICE of mass incarceration in this country has a lot of people like Piper Kerman doing insightful work that poses big questions about this system we live under.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. There are over 2 million people behind bars in the U.S.—the majority Black and Latino. Some 80,000 are subjected to conditions of solitary confinement that are deemed torture by international standards. Generations of youth in the ghettos and barrios have been demonized and criminalized. The public is told that policies like stop-and-frisk, which are clearly unconstitutional, are necessary to "get tough on crime." Schools, even elementary schools, function as pipelines to juvenile detention centers and prisons. And the public is told that "those people in prison" are the "worst of the worst"—dangerous and violent, who deserve no mercy and need to be kept behind bars.

All this underscores the illegitimacy of this system and that it is going to take revolution—nothing less to get at the root causes of all this, to put an end to this nightmare and the many other injustices and horrors of this system.

I really recommend this book and TV series. There's a lot of heart here. A lot of fun, a lot to think and talk about. Orange Is the New Black is a welcome addition to the conversation and cultural entertainment that's needed in these urgent times where matters of conscience call upon people to open their eyes and move to change the world.



Interviews with Piper Kerman available at

Piper Kerman, Park Slope Prisoner, April 6, 2010, Brooklyn Based (Annaliese Griffin)

Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison—a Powerful Memoir by Piper Kerman, Alternet, March 21, 2010 (Liliana Segura)

'Orange Is the New Black'—I Spent a Year in a Women's Prison, April 12, 2010, Lemondrop, (Melissa Rose Bernardo)

Piper Kerman, author of Orange Is the New Black: My Year Inside a Women's Prison, April 6th, 2010, Memoirville (Whitney Joiner)

"Orange Is the New Black": What's a nice girl like you doing in prison?, April 11, 2010, Salon (Mary Elizabeth Williams)

Piper Kerman talks about her year behind bars on drug charges, and what we get wrong about female inmates

From the Hellholes of Incarceration to a Future of Emancipation (Special Issue on Prisons and Prisoners in the U.S.)

See especially, "The Scandal of Women's Prisons...And the Shackles that Bind Half of Humanity."

The Sentencing Project fact sheet, September 2012

Coalition for Prisoners Rights Newsletter, Vol. 36-c, No. 3, March 2011

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