People who have known me a long a time know my fascination with prisons. It started to creep up on me in my 20s in college. I was taking some class–the name of which is now long forgotten– and we watched this wild documentary on the Stanford prison experiment. If you are not familiar with this experiment from the early ’70s you should check out the documentary about it. But, basically a group of young men are chosen to simulate a prison environment. Some are the prisoners and some are the guards. The “prisoners” in this case have not committed any real crimes and assignment into one of the two groups is completely random. This gets crazy fast! And, as I recall the experiment was cut short because it was becoming a little too realistic. This is what got me interested in prison dynamics.
As a result of my curiosity I have read a number of texts on the history of prisons and the rise of the American for-profit prison industry, toured both closed and operating prisons, and served on a citizens panel about prison funding in my state.
None of this prompted me to read Piper Kerman’s book. Instead, it was the good old Netflix series. I started watching and got hooked.
While I can say I have been interested in prisons, I cannot say I have been interested in prisoners. They are very much “the other”. Aside from a friend or two picked up on a DWI (and that’s no laughing matter) I haven’t really known any prisoners. But, a nice upper middle-class white girl who pretty much had it together and then ends up in jail on an old charge…now there is a person I can relate to. So, after watching the whole season, I got a hold of the book.
It is different from the show. Many of the stories in the book are dramatized in the show. But, many of the characters from the book make it into the show.
One aspect that really struck me was the non-violent nature of Kerman’s experience. Of course, she was in a low-security facility for non-violent offenders and it was a women’s prison not a men’s facility. But, so many of my own ideas of prison include fights and physical abuse. This was not really a major factory in Kerman’s experience.
This is also different from the Netflix series. Now I know, I shouldn’t compare the book and the show, but I am going to any way. What disappoints me about the show after reading the book is that Kerman takes a lot of time to paint a very real experience of her time in prison. And, because of her background has cross-over appeal to a lot of people who might not take the time to read about a woman’s prison experience. The show seems to feed into all the stereotypes that the media has been showing us over the years. Stereotypes the author wants the reader to move beyond.
As for the book and writing, it is a fine, easy read. It is certainly not earth shattering and the book is not going to be added to the list of the great American memoirs. But, I do think it will appeal to middle and upper-middle class white women, because Kerman is so relatable. I think book clubs across America will be zeroing in on this work. And, they should. It is immeasurably better than other book club best-sellers such as Eat, Love, Pray and Julie Julia (both of which I hated!). At least this is a look behind the curtain of America’s growing prison system.