Along with hoards of other Netflix subscribers, I settled into my couch earlier this month to power through Orange is the Black, the much-hyped new series from the same distribution network (channel? online service? whatevs) whose House of Cards occupied the better part of my February.
For the uninitiated, OITNB is the story of Piper Chapman, a yuppie blonde whose past indiscretions–a brief stint smuggling drug money–come back to haunt her when her erstwhile lady lover/cartel supervisor (?) sells her out to the cops almost a decade later. In the show, Piper is sent to a minimum-security women’s correctional facility to serve her 12ish months, alongside (because of course) said lady lover, who’s also locked up for her cartel involvement. The show, which touches on themes like class, gender, sexuality and race (among others) is a touching, insightful and extremely witty look at the realities of prison in America, the country that currently has as many people locked up as there are in all of Houston.
Netflix’s OITNB is based on a memoir of the same name, written by Piper Kerman, who was incarcerated for 13 months at the women’s federal correctional institute in Danbury, Connecticut (plus a few weeks at other facilities).
As a book, OITNB is pretty good, though disadvantaged when stacked up against its TV iteration. For one, much of the show’s strength comes in its ability to (ahem) show, instead of tell. Basic prison info can be conveyed visually, and the more nuanced commentary is presented as dialogue between inmates, or between an inmate and a correctional officer or counselor. By contrast, as the narrator of her own story, Piper Kerman spends far more time explaining things that the show highlights effortlessly: antiquated (yet generally peaceful) racial divisions between inmates, decrepit facilities, lacking rehabilitation programs, dubiously competent COs. Similarly, Piper’s sometimes tone-deaf naïveté as a prisoner—a point of annoyance only in the first few episodes of the Netflix season—feels much more present throughout the book, where we’re limited to her perspective.
Which isn’t to say that Piper Kerman is a bad narrator. OITNB is well-paced, entertaining, and thoroughly “reported.” And although there are some fundamental differences between the show and the book—Kerman does not serve most of her time with her former girlfriend—the vast majority of the people she describes exist either identically, similarly or as composites on screen. Moreover, many of the show’s hilarious moments—including one inmate’s revenge-pee on the floor outside the bunk of another inmate—are also taken from the book.
But what is casually evident in the show—that Piper is different from the vast majority of her prison peers—is belabored in the book. Kerman’s upper-class background and level of education, which ingratiate her to some of the staff and those prisoners in need of writing help, are mentioned with a sometimes wearying frequency. It’s an attempt to highlight the irony of what separates her from the other inmates (upbringing, education, financial stability) and what connects them (convictions for nonviolent drug crimes) but can come across as a little “and everyone was just so pleasantly surprised to see someone like me there.” Kerman’s sporadic attempts at slang—at one point she calls Mothers Day celebrations “off the chain”—don’t do her any favors, either.
Of course, although OITNB is about Kerman, it’s also not. The book — and in a more comedic way, the show — is about the prison system. While Piper may not earn much sympathy complaining about the caliber of food and quality of shower slippers, her broader insights into prison and its lack of tangible “rehabilitation” efforts are impactful. The women at Danbury work menial jobs, are paid less than a quarter an hour, and have limited opportunities to improve intellectually or prepare themselves for life on the outside. Moreover, in prison, rules are ill-explained and enforced with little consistency; a hug between inmates might be overlooked one day and cause for solitary confinement the next. In other words, it’s easy to fuck up, and the consequences of fucking up can be monumental.
OITNB’s undercurrent of social and political commentary is more overt in the book, and Piper’s incredulous frustration with the system is for the most part eye-opening and appropriate (food complaints notwithstanding). It’s no surprise that she has since gotten involved with prison issues, and recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about the perils of transferring Danbury inmates to facilities further away from their families. And yet I couldn’t help but miss—and can’t help but appreciate—the more comedic nature of the show, which touches on the same issues, just less directly, and with a wink and nudge that make it possible to empathize with and dislike Piper at the same time. The book is more informative; the show is more enjoyable. The book forces you to confront the issues of incarceration — political, financial, and moral — and the show lets you have a good time while doing it.
TITLE: Orange is the New Black: My Year in Women’s Prison
AUTHOR: Piper Kerman
PAGES: 352 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: n/a
SORTA LIKE: You Got Nothing Coming meets Random Family
FIRST LINE: “International baggage claim in the Brussels airport was large and airy, with multiple carousels circling endlessly.”