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Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman.
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Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison is a memoir by Piper Kerman, detailing her experiences as an inmate at a federal women’s prison, where she served for just over a year. Piper was a privileged, well-educated white woman from an upper-middle-class family.Shortly after graduating college in the early 1990s, Piper became involved with her girlfriend Nora Jansen’s international drug smuggling operation. Despite the glamour of her jet-setting lifestyle, however, Piper had growing apprehensions about what she was doing. She knew that Nora was untrustworthy, dangerous, and fully willing to exploit her for her own advantage. Nora thought little of putting Piper at great legal and physical risk if it meant more profit for the drug smuggling operation. Ultimately, Piper ended her relationship with Nora and cut off all ties with her.

Indictment and Plea

Piper began a more conventional, risk-free life, glad to have put her criminal past behind her. She landed a job as a television producer and editor, working primarily on infomercials and met and fell in love with a man named Larry. He was not the risk-seeking, hip, bohemian type she had traditionally been attracted to, but he was good-hearted, kind, and loved her intensely—and Piper found, this was all she ever wanted.

The happy couple moved to New York City for work in 1998. That May, US customs officials appeared at their home to tell Piper that she was indicted on conspiracy charges related to her old drug smuggling activities. Nora had given Piper’s name to the authorities, which had resulted in her being charged as a co-conspirator. Terrified of a potentially long sentence if she risked trial, Piper accepted a plea deal and awaited her fate. After Piper pleaded guilty, Larry proposed to her. She knew that together, they would be able to overcome whatever the future had in store for them.

Piper was, at last, sentenced on December 8, 2003 to 15 months in prison at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut, a minimum-security women’s prison. The unknown date which Piper had dreaded for five years was at hand.

Self-Surrender

Piper self-surrendered in February 2004, a decade after committing the offense for which she was convicted. As a glaring symbol of her privilege, Piper ate a foie gras sandwich while she waited to be processed. All throughout the dehumanizing intake process, the guards barked orders at her and treated her with minimal human dignity and respect. Piper underwent a humiliating strip search, during which she was forced to strip, bend over, squat, and cough, while the correctional officer (CO) performed a cavity search. At last, she was issued her prisoner number. She was no longer Piper Kerman; she was now federal inmate #11187-424, a new identity for a new life.

Once she arrived at the minimum security camp, the inmates showed Piper around and introduced her to the basic rhythms of prison life that all inmates were required to follow. These included daily prisoner counts, assigned meal times, and bed inspections. All in all, it was a barrage of unfamiliar (and seemingly arbitrary) rules and regulations. Piper learned that everything in prison was governed by a maddeningly slow and inefficient bureaucracy.

At prison orientation a few days later, the female warden warned the new arrivals about sexual contact in prison and reminded the women that non-consensual sex was strictly prohibited. As she spoke, Piper realized she wasn’t talking about sexual contact between inmates—she was talking about unwanted advances from the guards.

Adjusting to Prison Life

Race determined and defined the culture at Danbury. Segregation was the unwritten rule behind bars. Most of Piper’s friends were white, predominantly Italian-American. The prison officials reinforced this dynamic by lumping racial groups together into the same cell blocks, which, characteristically, bore stereotyped names (“Spanish Harlem” for the Latina inmates, “The Ghetto” for the African-American inmates).

Piper clung to daily rituals and routines in an effort to give some order to her day and provide herself with some agency and mastery over her life—giving herself some power and control in a situation where she otherwise had none. So she would make her coffee the same way every morning; sit in the yard at her usual spot; and internalize the old prison mantra of doing your time, not letting your time do you.

Piper had to overcome some of her own subconscious prejudices about the kinds of people she now found herself living with. One day, a black inmate named Rochelle asked Piper if she could borrow one of her books. Piper was ashamed to discover that she harbored racialized fears that Rochelle would steal her book. When Rochelle returned it a week later, Piper mentally chided herself for assuming the worst about Rochelle. She saw that she had much to learn about humility—how was she any different than these other women?

Finding Community

Inmates managed to hold on to their culture and dignity, even inside prison. The West Indian women and “Spanish mamis” managed to make genuinely delicious Latin and Caribbean dishes, using nothing more than junk food from the commissary as ingredients. The human spirit and passion for creativity could not be extinguished, even at Danbury.

Piper tried hard not to advertise her privilege and unique status as an upper-middle-class white woman in a prison disproportionately populated by underprivileged people of color. She turned down an opportunity to become the prison van driver (a coveted high-status position) and declined an offer from Pop, a powerful and influential leader among the white prisoners, to become her bunkmate, lest she be perceived as racist if she chose to leave her black bunkmate, Natalie.

Although Piper had chosen not to bunk with...

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Orange is the New Black Summary Orange is the New Black Guide Chapter 1: Looking for Adventure

Orange Is the New Black is Piper Kerman’s memoir of her year at a federal women’s prison. Piper was a well-educated white woman from an upper-middle-class, liberal New England family. Growing up in these circumstances, there seemed to be little doubt that Piper would go to a good college, graduate, and start a successful career as a white-collar professional. With her social and financial privileges, as well as her obvious intelligence and solid work ethic, this kind of life was certainly open to Piper. But Piper was to take a different path, one that her experiences and background could never have prepared her for.

Nora

Piper graduated from Smith College in the early 1990s. Not wanting to settle down right away and start a career, she instead went looking for adventure and new opportunities for self-exploration. She moved to the nearby town of Northampton, Massachusetts, where she began a bohemian chic life alongside a clique of other 20-something college graduates. She worked at a brewery and enjoyed casual sexual encounters with her peers. During this time, she also explored another dimension of her sexuality, having relationships with women as well as...

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Orange is the New Black Summary Orange is the New Black Guide Chapter 2: Welcome to Danbury

Piper self-surrendered in February 2004, reporting to Danbury with Larry. They sat in the waiting room of the correctional facility for hours as they waited for her paperwork to be processed—an early introduction to the red tape and bureaucratic inefficiency that would define so much of her prison experience.

While waiting, Piper munched on a foie gras sandwich that Larry had packed her the night before, a glaring symbol of her wealth and privilege. In a prison whose inmate population was disproportionately poor women of color, eating a gourmet sandwich made of fattened duck liver reminded Piper of just how different she was from these other inmates who were about to become her neighbors and daily companions. She mused to herself that this had to have been the only time in the history of the American penal system that someone was eating foie gras in the waiting room.

Intake

At last, Piper was asked to leave the waiting room and enter the prison to begin the intake process. Larry was not allowed to accompany her beyond this point. Piper said her tearful, painful goodbye to her fiancé, during which Larry told Piper that he would call her and come back to...

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Shortform Exercise: Examine Your Privilege

Think about how your advantages in life might affect your thinking.


Do you have privileges or advantages in life that others might lack? Briefly describe them.

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Orange is the New Black Summary Orange is the New Black Guide Chapter 3: On the Job

After a week, Piper moved out of the Rooms and into permanent housing in the Ghetto, the primarily African-American housing unit. There, her bunkmate was Natalie, an older woman of Caribbean origins. Natalie was widely respected among the other inmates as a tough woman who knew her way around prison—Piper learned from Pop that, years ago, Natalie had beaten another inmate with a sack stuffed with combination locks during an altercation. Thankfully, Natalie liked Piper and agreed to take her under her wing. Natalie was, however, strict about order and cleanliness in their bunk and made it clear to Piper that she would not tolerate messiness or clutter.

Life in the Ghetto was unlike anything Piper had ever been exposed to before. One night, a woman urinated on the floor of the neighboring bunk as part of an ongoing feud with another prisoner. More generally, there were loud, chaotic nights, with women talking, yelling, singing, playing music, and calling out to one another across the dormitory.

On Valentine’s Day, Piper saw that the women of Danbury engaged in all the merriment of the holiday that couples on the outside did. There were romances, discreet displays of...

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Orange is the New Black Summary Orange is the New Black Guide Chapter 4: Prison Family

At the end of May, it was Mother’s Day. This was an especially difficult day for many of the incarcerated mothers at Danbury, as it reminded them of their forced separation from their children—indeed, 80 percent of the American female prison population are mothers. Piper saw that families missed whole chapters of each other’s lives because of prison—births, deaths, weddings, graduations, and other major milestones. Many women at Danbury experienced a loved one passing away on the outside without ever having the opportunity to say goodbye.

Deprived of the company of their real families, prisoners formed their own adopted families. These usually featured an older woman functioning as a “mom” to a group of younger “daughters.” Pop served as Piper’s “mom,” while two inmates named Toni and Rosemarie were her “sisters.”

One pregnant inmate, a woman named Doris, went into labor at Danbury and gave birth to her son after she was transported to a local hospital. Piper learned that in some prisons in the US, pregnant inmates were forced to give birth while shackled—a barbaric practice that, thankfully, Doris was not forced to endure. Nevertheless, Doris was immediately separated...

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Orange is the New Black Summary Orange is the New Black Guide Chapter 5: Comings and Goings

In September, the Bureau of Prisons issued an order banning inmates at Danbury from smoking. This was met with great outcry from the prison population—tobacco was one of the few pleasures and stress relievers these incarcerated women had. Smoking was more than just a habit, it was a ritual for many women and an important social lubricant. People met in groups to smoke together, with cigarettes serving as a focal point for the community.

Piper herself was not a smoker, but she disliked the pettiness and high-handedness of the new regulation. She wryly observed the irony of doing time with a population of women mostly locked up for illegal drug offenses, while cigarettes killed far more people than the drugs did.

Job Fair

That fall, the annual job fair came to Danbury. This event was yet another reminder of how inadequately the prison was preparing its inmates to functionally reintegrate into mainstream society. Piper (in yet another marker of her privilege) was fortunate enough to have a job waiting for her, a marketing position at a company run by a friend of hers.

Her fellow inmates, disproportionately women of color, lacked the kind of social capital...

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Shortform Exercise: Address Power Inequality

Think about how power disparities affect relationships.


Have you ever been in a situation where someone in a position of authority or power took advantage of you? Briefly describe what happened.

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Orange is the New Black Summary Orange is the New Black Guide Chapter 6: The Final Stretch

Now a seasoned prisoner, Piper acknowledged to herself that she had been indifferent to suffering before coming to prison—but that a transformation had taken place within her. She was, in fact, a good person, capable of compassion and empathy and able to provide real comfort and help to those in need. Piper found that she was now experienced enough to serve as a comforting and nurturing figure to new inmates (just as people like Pop and Rosemarie had been to her).

Just like Pop, Piper herself could dispense tough love when she needed to, as when she warned a young inmate named [restricted term] not to lose her temper with the guards; but, also like Pop, she could also be soothing and maternal when the situation demanded, on one occasion cradling a girl named Amy while the distraught young lady cried for her father. The other women at Danbury, Piper saw, had taught her to be better and more compassionate. She hoped that her grandmother would be proud of her for that.

Unfortunately, the thing Piper most feared eventually came to pass when her grandmother finally died on the day after Thanksgiving. It was a devastating loss, especially not having the opportunity to...

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Shortform Exercise: Reflect on Orange is the New Black

Think about the main takeaways from Orange Is the New Black.


How do you think the criminal justice system should balance punishment vs. rehabilitation?

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Table of Contents

  • 1-Page Summary
  • Chapter 1: Looking for Adventure
  • Chapter 2: Welcome to Danbury
  • Exercise: Examine Your Privilege
  • Chapter 3: On the Job
  • Chapter 4: Prison Family
  • Chapter 5: Comings and Goings
  • Exercise: Address Power Inequality
  • Chapter 6: The Final Stretch
  • Exercise: Reflect on Orange is the New Black