Orange is the New Black, by Piper Kerman

For a college statistics class, I wrote a paper that analyzed the efficacy of the death penalty in preventing crime. My conclusion was that there is insignificant (arguably negative) correlation between a possible sentence of death and a corresponding reduction in crime. Many in society like the death penalty as revenge, plain and simple. (As long as it’s somebody else paying the price.)

I’ve been reading Piper Kerman’s memoir Orange is the New Black, intrigued by the Netflix series of the same name. First thought: This memoir probably wouldn’t have been published if Kerman wasn’t privileged and white. (Get over it. It’s still a good read.) Second thought: There but for the Grace of God…

When talking about prison reform with those who are generally opposed to it, one tends to hear the refrain, “If they don’t like it, they shouldn’t have done whatever got them sent to prison in the first place.” Well, yes. But just about everyone has done something that could probably get them sent to prison, depending on the judge’s mood on a given day; most people can’t list every offense that might land them in jail, in any case.

Why do we send people to prison? Does it come down to revenge? If not, and if the idea of prison doesn’t prevent crime (like the death penalty, fear of prison doesn’t seem to dissuade offenders), then why do we send people there? Shouldn’t the goal be to reaffirm/reinstate individuals as contributing members of society?

Like welfare recipients, prison inmates tend to be judged by the bad seeds – those whose behavior is antisocial and are held up as representative of all. This is where Kerman’s book shines – she illustrates from the inside many examples of people who were caught up in bad circumstances and were treated poorly by a system that wasn’t interested in helping them. She is symathetic enough to help the reader understand why the system might have become broken to begin with, but she never loses sight of the fact that it needs fixing.

Some reviewers have complained that the Netflix series changes many of the details from Kerman’s book. I have no problem with the changes – in almost every case they create far more compelling drama than Kerman’s presumably truthful recounting of her own experience. Still, Kerman’s memoir stands on its own as an interesting read and a call for reform.