When federal agents knocked on her door with an indictment in hand, Piper Kerman barely resembled the reckless young woman she was shortly after graduating Smith College. Happily ensconced in a New York City apartment, with a promising career and an attentive boyfriend, Piper was forced to reckon with the consequences of her very brief, very careless dalliance in the world of drug trafficking.
Following a plea deal for her 10-year-old crime, Piper spent a year in the infamous women’s correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut, which she found to be no “Club Fed.” In Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, Piper takes readers into B-Dorm, a community of colorful, eccentric, vividly drawn women. Their stories raise issues of friendship and family, mental illness, the odd cliques and codes of behavior, the role of religion, the uneasy relationship between prisoner and jailor, and the almost complete lack of guidance for life after prison.
Compelling, moving, and often hilarious, Orange is the New Black sheds a unique light on life inside a women’s prison, by a Smith College graduate who did the crime and did the time.
If you decide to read Orange is the New Black because you love the TV show, turn back now. That’s what I did. Let’s first talk a bit about the TV show and what it’s all about:
- The TV show portrays prison as being scary and potentially dangerous.
- Piper gets “starved out” (denied food) by the inmates who work in the kitchen.
- The TV show is filled with sex and drugs.
- The COs are extremely corrupt. They put people into the SHU for almost no reason, they assault women, they smuggle drugs into the prison, etc.
- There is a lot of relationship drama between Piper and her fiancé Larry. They both struggle with the separation and long distance, and then things get worse when Piper realizes that Alex (her ex-girlfriend, the one who got her into drug trafficking) is in prison with her. Piper has a bit of a lesbian affair with Alex and that obviously puts a strain on her relationship with Larry.
- Tons of drama between the prisoners as well. Grudges, stalking, harassment, and even murder attempts.
Orange is the New Black the book has almost none of those things.
The book sends a very different message about women’s prison. It almost seems to say, “Women band together and support each other in prison,” which is NOT what the TV show conveys. As soon as Piper stepped into prison (in the book), I knew it was vastly different from the TV show. Left and right women were welcoming her, asking her if she was okay, and giving her “welcome gifts” (shampoo, etc.). Literally not a single inmate was mean to Piper (or anyone, really).
I know the fact that the women were all nice to each other is supposed to be a good thing, since this is a memoir. Speaking in terms of real life, it’s great that women support each other in prison, but the lack of drama does make for a less interesting story. (And I feel terrible to be basically saying, “Your life isn’t an interesting story,” but I don’t know how else to put it…)
One of the biggest differences between the book and TV show is that Alex (named Nora in the book) isn’t even in prison with Piper at all View Spoiler » [except for the last chapter when they’re in a temporary “holding” area together « Hide Spoiler] . As expected, this cuts out a lot of the intensity and drama, and it means there are basically zero relationship problems between Piper and Larry. I’m sure the separation was hard on them, but there were no doubts or moments where they thought their relationship wouldn’t make it (at least none that were conveyed in the book).
While I did enjoy reading Orange is the New Black to get a bit more background information on Piper’s situation, I didn’t find the book to be that entertaining. Although, I guess since the book is a memoir, it is supposed to be more informational than entertaining (is it?). The book is almost written in a diary entry style. It’s not really a “from beginning to end” type narrative; it’s a collection of entries that describe events. But there were long periods of time where I felt like nothing interesting was happening and it was just another “not so bad” day in prison. The book seriously lacked conflict because everyone in prison was just so damn nice, and as a result, I got a bit bored.
Ultimately, I just went into the book for the wrong reasons. I got hooked on the drama from the TV show and was hoping the book would show me how bits of that panned out… like that crazy cliffhanger at the end!! View Spoiler » [Did Piper actually kill that crazy religious meth addict?? Well, that psychotic character doesn’t even exist in the book. « Hide Spoiler] But there is almost ZERO connection between the TV show and the book, except for the very vague, overall story of a woman going to prison for a 10-year-old drug crime.
The TV Show: I recommend it!
The TV show is interesting and full of drama. There is quite a bit of nudity and sexual scenes, so it’s not for the faint of heart. But it’s interesting, addictive, and loaded with prison scandals and relationship problems.
The one downside is that the Piper portrayed in the TV show isn’t always the most likable person. My boyfriend and I often yelled at her for making stupid decisions that could result in her getting more time added onto her sentence (how stupid could she be??). View Spoiler » [Like when she finds a cell phone in the bathroom and starts USING it!!! Okay, fine, she didn’t make calls, but she used it to play games. If she got caught with a phone, she’d be in tons of trouble regardless of what she was using it for. Or when she started having sex with Alex… not only is sex forbidden in prison, but I was pissed that she was cheating on Larry and didn’t seem to find ANY problem with it. She showed no signs of guilt or remorse; it’s like she didn’t even think she was doing anything wrong! « Hide Spoiler]
The Book: don’t read it for entertainment
The book lacks conflict and entertainment value. If you’re interested in a fairly detailed account of what prison life is like for women, give it a read, but don’t go into it expecting it to be anything like the TV show. There are no scandals, there’s no drama, there’s no lesbian love affair (in fact there’s zero sexual activity), there are no COs smuggling drugs into prison, and Piper and Larry’s relationship holds up just fine.