I love memoirs. Anyone who read this post about my favorite memoirs knows about my love of peeking into the life of someone I don’t know who has an interesting story to tell. So this led me to Orange is the New Black. I had heard about the TV show and was intrigued; however, as soon as I learned it was based on a book I obviously had to read the book before starting to watch the show! I had never seen a memoir or novel that looked at the women’s prison system before and immediately wanted to read it.
Kerman’s memoir details her year in a minimum security prison camp. She ends up there as a result of transporting a suitcase of drug money from Chicago to Europe a decade prior. She writes with honesty and humour about a situation that is anything but funny, in a system that would probably prefer she was a little less honest. As someone who had no prior knowledge of the goings-on in women’s prisons, the memoir gave me an interesting perspective of the US justice system.
Kerman details the lives and stories of her co-inmates and describes how they dealt with their incarceration and subsequent release. She gives you characters (who are real people) that you want to root for, despite their criminal past. My only disappointment with this is that you do not learn more about what happened to them after they left prison.
Kerman also provides interesting observations about the relationship between guards and prisoners and between other staff and prisoners. Delving into these complex and unequal power relationships, Kerman provides the reader with much food for thought.
I found the strongest theme throughout the novel was that of family bonds. How family can help you get through tough situations or make them worse; family bonds that are through blood; family bonds through friendship and the sharing of circumstance; how mothers deal with separation from their children and vice versa; and how all these complexities play in integral roles in the way prisoners deal with their circumstances in prison and after release. Never underestimate the power of a good support system.
In addition to being an all-around good read, I think that Orange is the New Black would make a great book club pick. The book raises a number of questions that I think would lead to some interesting discussions, including questions surrounding:
- How prisoners are treated in the system
- Who goes to prison and for how long
- The types of rehabilitation offered, both for addictions and to successfully integrate back into society
- Mothers in prison
Although this book discusses the American prison system, I have to wonder how much better is the Canadian system really?
Overall I would give this book a 4.5 out of 5 stars – it was captivating and held my attention; it brought some important questions to the forefront; and it was well written.