Orange is the New Black is Piper Kerman’s memoir of her year spent in a women’s prison for a nonviolent drug crime. From her first strip search to the final moments of harrowing uncertainty, Kerman provides a clear-eyed view of corrections that captures the mundane banality, loopy logic, and outright dehumanization which occurs behind prison walls. As a man who has spent over a dozen years incarcerated, I was surprised to see so many similarities between our experiences, but in hindsight, I shouldn’t have been. The Department of Corrections has nothing to do with correcting aberrant criminal behavior or providing rehabilitation, but rather is in the business of warehousing people—treating them like commodities, merely numbers on a ledger, regardless of sex, color, or creed. Kerman provides a wry indictment of the criminal justice system not by railing against it, but by revealing its brutal truths.
More than some manifesto against mass incarceration, Orange is the New Black is a picture of the strength of love, as seen from the author’s fiancé and family, as well as the resiliency of the human spirit. Prison is designed to strip people of their identities at every turn, but the women locked up with Kerman exhibited fortitude in the face of despair by not only adapting to their circumstances, but often thriving in their own ways. Kerman has provided a document which should be read by everyone whose life has been touched by the criminal justice system in any way, as well as anyone who thinks their law-abiding ways keep them exempt from having to think about or deal with the so-called dregs of society that populate prisons. With mass incarceration still on the rise, this is a sobering and relevant read now more than ever.