Orange is the new Black

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Piper Kerman’s story in Orange is the new Black is unique in a number of ways. First of all, someone from a wealthy and educated family background is convicted of drug dealing and money laundering. Even though it is still possible to hear of upper class citizens getting involved in the crime associated with the poor, such cases are rare, as is the case of Piper, a graduate of Smith College who chooses to live her life in her own way. Piper gets into a relationship with Nora with whom they have occasional lesbian affair before she is drawn into the world of drug trafficking and money laundering. Together they traverse the globe, traveling as far as Indonesia. But luckily for her, Piper soon realizes her mistake and moves to Los Angeles where she begins her career as a TV producer and later marries her doting husband, Larry. However, ten years later while she is working in New York City as a TV producer, the FBI arrests her for drug trafficking and money laundering. She pleads guilty in court and is sentenced to eighteen months in jail but it takes five more years before she is jailed, after efforts to extradite Alajih, the drug lord, from London fails. Chapter three of Orange is the new Black presents Piper’s first day in prison and the events that happen to her that inspire her to write the book Orange is the new Black.

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As stated earlier, a number of issues in the story make the book unique. First of all, the chapter introduces us to the life in prison from the perspective of a woman prisoner. Very few books ever tackle the issue of women in prison like Piper’s Orange is the new Black which is written in the first person narration in the form memoirs. Piper endures the humiliating body searches. She is taken through a strip search before she is given some khaki uniforms which she dislikes. She also finds some of the restrictions like frequent head count and the use of telephone a bit disturbing. Her admission counselor Mr. Butorsky infringes on her private life by assuming she is a lesbian and advises her that she does not need to engage in lesbian sex (par. 72). Piper’s world seems to be turning upside down since she is getting into a very unfamiliar environment.

Piper’s first day however does not present to her events that are not all gloomy. She finds her roommates friendly and soon she is so relaxed that she phones her husband to reassure him that she is fine and loves him. They watch the movie Bad Boys II which incidentally reflects on Piper’s past life of crime. She is later met by white women who offer her some privileges in the form of shower shoes, toothpaste, and soap among many others (par. 187). What is so disturbing is the manner in which Piper does not feel guilty about this gesture. She also encounters incidents of racism some other times during her tenure in prison where she claims that she had to reject some favors just to fit in the company of her black prison friends. However, she sounds heroic; it is like by doing so she was telling the world how a white person can sometimes stoop to the level of those under them. In the entire book, Piper presents herself as different from the others in jail, often taking a moment to reflect on the less privileged jail mates who never get postcards or get visited by their families. At the end of the day, Piper realizes that her life in prison may not be that hard as she had imagined. She reads Pride and Prejudice before going to bed. The novel which she reads incidentally talks about perceptions based on class system and how the perceptions control our decisions.

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Piper’s memoir from the first day in prison gives both the real world of prison life in America and also a gloss of what really takes place in American prisons. Written from her personal point of, detailing her own unique experiences, Piper’s book captures some of the sexual harassment that women prisoners are subjected to through the humiliating strip searches. This fact is also reflected in Kingshott and Jones’ paper which details how various legislations in the USA are more preoccupied with the sexuality of women and the general patriarchal penal system whose officers are more likely to mishandle female convicts (Kingshott & Jones, 2015). The paper further discusses the discreet issue of racism within American prison facilities where, quoting Franklin, 2008; Rafter & Natalizia, 1981, leniency was often accorded to white women. Piper’s book does not explicitly discuss this fact, but through her own experiences, the reader would realize that the main character in this book is lucky because of her background, both economically and racially.

Piper’s book Orange is new Black gives an honest account about a prisoner’s tenure in jail and the experiences she faces as a white middle class and educated female prisoner. Although most of the encounters we read are the obvious experiences one would find in an American prison system, some disturbing revelations about racism, sexual harassment of female prisoners and how one’s economic background determines their life in prison are presented. It is such revelations that would raise awareness on such sensitive matters like class, race and gender at the time it is assumed the American society no longer has such social challenges.

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  1. Kerman, P. (2010). Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women. Spiegel & Grau Publishers.
  2. Kingshott, B. & Jones, T. R. (23rd November, 2015). ‘A Feminist Analysis of the American Criminal Justice System’s Response to Human Trafficking’. Conference: The American Society of Criminology, At Washington, DC, Volume: 2015 Annual Meeting.
  3. Franklin, C.A. (2008). Women offenders, disparate treatment, and criminal
  4. Justice: A theoretical, historical, and contemporary overview. Criminal
  5. Justice Studies, 21, 343-362.
  6. Rafter, N.H., & Natalizia, E.M. (1981). Marxist feminism: Implications for criminal
  7. Justice. Crime & Delinquency, 27, 81-98.
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