As someone who has spent nearly two decades in prison, I approached Piper Kerman’s book about her 15-month stint in a federal prison, the now famous Orange is the New Black, with some skepticism. After all, here’s a middle-class white woman turned criminal who maintained her family and friends and a well-connected fiancé while serving time in a “Disneyland” institution.
I felt Nancy Mullane’s book Life After Murder tapped into reality with: “No one really goes to prison alone. An invisible rope stretches from the heart and mind of a prisoner out through the bars of his cell, up into the sky, over the hills and water, dropping back down to earth far away, inside the lives of the people left behind. As the years pass—five, 10, 20, 30—the fibers of that rope become frayed, and sometimes they snap.” That one simple passage in Life After Murder exposed what a long prison sentence does to a prisoner’s ability to keep it together, socially speaking. Having experienced the distancing effects of estrangement first-hand, it was poignant to read about it from someone who witnessed its results.
Yet another witness is writer Jack Black who lived the life in You Can Win. Based on his long, arduous life and time as a criminal, convict and inmate, he really could talk about what prison is. Black described the sickening feeling he experienced nearly nine decades ago: “You start doing time the minute the handcuffs are on your wrists. The first day you are locked up is the hardest, and the last day is the easiest. There comes a feeling of helplessness when the prison gates swallow you up—cut you off from the sunshine and flowers out in the world—but that feeling soon wears away if you have guts.”
What could Kerman understand about this kind of sentiment?
But Kerman’s brilliant, intellectual insight into what prisons are all about surprised me. In fact, she echoes Black by noting, “The truth is, the prison and its residents fill your thoughts, and it’s hard to remember what it’s like to be free, even after a few months.”
Kerman’s safety net was her strong family ties, but she understands that a lot of people who get lost behind the bars aren’t so fortunate. In other words, they have burned their bridges. So, Kerman gets it when she writes, “I would never have survived without my visits and so would grit my teeth and rush through the motions. It was the prison system’s quid pro quo: You want contact with the outside world? Be prepared to show your ass, every time.” Moreover, she recognized that “prison is so much about the people who are missing from your life and who fill your imagination.” These shared, clear depictions about prison life grabbed me and kept me engaged in Kerman’s misery-filled short stint in federal prison.
Orange is the New Black also gets into the mental health crisis plaguing the U.S. prison system. That gave me hope; since mental sickness is a part of the storyline, perhaps free people will take a serious look into what’s being done to this population of misfits. “Prison is quite literally a ghetto in the most classic sense of the word, a place where the U.S. government now puts not only the dangerous but also the inconvenient—people who are mentally ill, people who arc addicts, people who arc poor and uneducated and unskilled,” Kerman writes.
Orange is the New Black grasps “prison realism” where “prison mandates stoicism and tries to crush genuine emotion, but everyone, jailers and prisoner alike, are crossing boundaries left and right.” These small situations where the human element cannot be ignored makes you fight to be yourself. As Kerman writes, “you still had to resolve not to believe what the prison system—the staff, the rules, even what some of the other prisoners—wanted you to think about yourself, which was the worst.”
Kerman’s ability to choose the right words resonates with imprisoned readers like me. Free people should trust in her overall message. After only a few pages into her saga, I was drawn and compelled to learn about myself through Kerman’s pen.
Juan Haines, our blogger in San Quentin State Prison, is Managing Editor of the San Quentin News.
Photo: Cast of Orange is the New Black