Friday, June 12, 2015

Book 'Em

The third season of Orange Is The New Black premieres today on Netflix.  Just by chance, I saw the book the series is based on in the library, so I checked it out to see what the real story is.  As expected, the series is highly fictionalized--real life can be moving, but doesn't work the same way that drama does.

The book is by Piper Kerman--in the show she's Piper Chapman.  Just out of Smith College in the early 90s, Kerman had a relationship with an older woman, and soon found herself part of the jet-setter/drug smuggler crowd.  In one case, Kerman helped carry some money over a border.  She eventually moved on, and met a nice guy named Larry.  But years later, as the old gang was rounded up and jailed, someone dropped a dime on Piper and the feds arrested her.

She pled guilty, and as drug laws in our country call for serious time, could have spent years behind bars.  She actually had to wait over five years for her sentence, since the feds thought she might be useful in bringing down one of the kingpins, and decided to supervise her rather than throw her in jail. When she finally was sentenced, she got fifteen months--thirteen with good behavior.  She surrendered herself to the authorities at the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut.  Most of the book is about her life there.

This being Piper Kerman's story, it's not the usual prison memoir--there's less violence and more crying, for instance.  But even at a minimum security place like Danbury, life is miserable.  There's no privacy, the food is horrible, and the people in charge often treat the inmates poorly.  And as an inmate, you are at their mercy--if it comes down to your word against theirs, they win.

Much of the book is about the many women Piper met, trying their best to deal with the situation.  They divided into cliques, often based on ethnicity, but Kerman seemed to be friendly with all types--perhaps being an educated, white, middle-class blonde she was something of a novelty.  Many inside were doing long stretches and so had hardened themselves to the place, while others were leaving soon and wondering what they'd do next.  Piper was sometimes sad to see her friends go, even if she knew it was a happy day for them.

Kerman doesn't think much of our prison system.  We're warehousing people, not teaching them how to deal with life when they get out.  And we've been incarcerating at a very high rate since the 80s, partly because of harsh drug laws that imprison non-violent offenders, who make up a large portion of the inmates. (I generally agree with this assessment, but also have to admit that since we've a been upping the prison population crime levels have dropped precipitously.)

The prisoners make do with what they've got, which isn't much--what is sent them, what they can afford at the commissary and what they can smuggle in.  They live in dorms, each sharing a space with another inmate.  They also have jobs, and Piper was assigned electrical work.  A useful skill, but the shop was run by man who was one of the least pleasant characters Piper met.  She was also much in demand among the prisoners for her writing skills, which they'd request when trying to get GEDs or something from the court system.

It's interesting to compare the book to the show, to see how TV dramatizes something that's powerful in real life, but wouldn't play on the tube.  For instance, the most popular character in the program might be Crazy Eyes, who's involved in numerous plots.  In the book, she's just a woman (a Latina, not an African-American) coming over from a rougher prison, who has designs on Piper.  Piper makes it clear she's not interested and that's that.  Then there's Pop--Red in the show.  She and Piper have some slight problems at first, but soon become close friends.  In the TV version, there's a huge struggle between the two where Piper is basically threatened with starvation.

For that matter, in the show, Piper discovers a lost screwdriver and that becomes a big deal--being found with such a weapon could mean trouble.  This leads to major plot developments, whereas in real life, she tossed it in the garbage, worried about it a little, and then it was over.  In the show, Piper is sent to solitary, which never actually happened. And in the show she and Larry go through all sorts of ups and downs, while in real life he was stalwart and she never stopped loving him.

The show also goes into great detail about the backstories of the prisoners, while in the book their histories are occasionally mentioned, but not much more.

Prison does offer Piper plenty of time for introspection, and she realizes she did something wrong and can't blame anyone else. In fact, seeing all the troubles drugs cause among the inmates, she realizes the damage she did to society.  (That's what she writes, anyway, and I have no reason to doubt her.)

Martha Stewart was sentenced while Piper was inside.  Danbury actually pretended it was filled and stopped taking new prisoners to avoid getting Stewart.  The inmates were disappointed, but Kerman figures the last thing this poorly-run institution wanted was a spotlight.

Just before she was scheduled to leave, she flew, via con air, to Chicago (by way of Oklahoma, where she spent some time behind bars) to testify in a drug case.  She met her old conspirators, whom she hated, though she grew to understand them a bit. And where they were held was worse than Danbury. (She also goes to the federal courts building on South Dearborn, where I've spent a lot of time, and also notes what a dump Chicago's Congress Hotel is--from what I can see, she's probably right, though I'm sure it was a classy joint fifty years ago.)

While in prison she got regular visits from family and friends (though her grandmother died when she was inside--unlike the Piper in the show, she could not get a furlough).  And when she got out, she had a life, and a job, waiting for her.  She wondered what so many others she knew in prison would do.  Even in good times they had it rough--being ex-felons, many would go back to a life of crime, or at least a life lived in an underground economy, and many would go back to drugs.

Kerman now regularly talks on prison issues.  Whether people are listening is another story.


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