Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison

Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison

by Piper Kerman


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With a career, a boyfriend, and a loving family, Piper Kerman barely resembles the reckless young woman who delivered a suitcase of drug money ten years before. But that past has caught up with her. Convicted and sentenced to fifteen months at the infamous federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut, the well-heeled Smith College alumna is now inmate #11187–424—one of the millions of people who disappear “down the rabbit hole” of the American penal system. From her first strip search to her final release, Kerman learns to navigate this strange world with its strictly enforced codes of behavior and arbitrary rules. She meets women from all walks of life, who surprise her with small tokens of generosity, hard words of wisdom, and simple acts of acceptance. Heartbreaking, hilarious, and at times enraging, Kerman’s story offers a rare look into the lives of women in prison—why it is we lock so many away and what happens to them when they’re there.
Praise for Orange Is the New Black
“Fascinating . . . The true subject of this unforgettable book is female bonding and the ties that even bars can’t unbind.”People (four stars)
“I loved this book. It’s a story rich with humor, pathos, and redemption. What I did not expect from this memoir was the affection, compassion, and even reverence that Piper Kerman demonstrates for all the women she encountered while she was locked away in jail. I will never forget it.”—Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love
“This book is impossible to put down because [Kerman] could be you. Or your best friend. Or your daughter.”Los Angeles Times
“Moving . . . transcends the memoir genre’s usual self-centeredness to explore how human beings can always surprise you.”USA Today
“It’s a compelling awakening, and a harrowing one—both for the reader and for Kerman.”Newsweek
Look for special features inside. Join the Random House Reader’s Circle for author chats and more.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385523394
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/08/2011
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 53,917
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Piper Kerman is vice president of a Washington, D.C.–based communications firm that works with foundations and nonprofits. A graduate of Smith College, she lives in Brooklyn.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Are You Gonna Go My Way?

International baggage claim in the Brussels airport was large and airy, with multiple carousels circling endlessly. I scurried from one to another, desperately trying to find my black suitcase. Because it was stuffed with drug money, I was more concerned than one might normally be about lost luggage.

I was twenty-three in 1993 and probably looked like just another anxious young professional woman. My Doc Martens had been jettisoned in favor of beautiful handmade black suede heels. I wore black silk pants and a beige jacket, a typical jeune fille, not a bit counterculture, unless you spotted the tattoo on my neck. I had done exactly as I had been instructed, checking my bag in Chicago through Paris, where I had to switch planes to take a short flight to Brussels.

When I arrived in Belgium, I looked for my black rollie at the baggage claim. It was nowhere to be seen. Fighting a rushing tide of panic, I asked in my mangled high school French what had become of my suitcase. “Bags don’t make it onto the right flight sometimes,” said the big lug working in baggage handling. “Wait for the next shuttle from Paris—it’s probably on that plane.”

Had my bag been detected? I knew that carrying more than $10,000 undeclared was illegal, let alone carrying it for a West African drug lord. Were the authorities closing in on me? Maybe I should try to get through customs and run? Or perhaps the bag really was just delayed, and I would be abandoning a large sum of money that belonged to someone who could probably have me killed with a simple phone call. I decided that the latter choice was slightly more terrifying. So I waited.

The next flight from Paris finally arrived. I sidled over to my new “friend” in baggage handling, who was sorting things out. It is hard to flirt when you’re frightened. I spotted the suitcase. “Mon bag!” I exclaimed in ecstasy, seizing the Tumi. I thanked him effusively, waving with giddy affection as I sailed through one of the unmanned doors into the terminal, where I spotted my friend Billy waiting for me. I had inadvertently skipped customs.

“I was worried. What happened?” Billy asked.

“Get me into a cab!” I hissed.

I didn’t breathe until we had pulled away from the airport and were halfway across Brussels.

My graduation processional at Smith College the year before was on a perfect New England spring day. In the sun-dappled quad, bagpipes whined and Texas governor Ann Richards exhorted my classmates and me to get out there and show the world what kind of women we were. My family was proud and beaming as I took my degree. My freshly separated parents were on their best behavior, my stately southern grandparents pleased to see their oldest grandchild wearing a mortarboard and surrounded by WASPs and ivy, my little brother bored out of his mind. My more organized and goal-oriented classmates set off for their graduate school programs or entry-level jobs at nonprofits, or they moved back home—not uncommon during the depths of the first Bush recession.

I, on the other hand, stayed on in Northampton, Massachusetts. I had majored in theater, much to the skepticism of my father and grandfather. I came from a family that prized education. We were a clan of doctors and lawyers and teachers, with the odd nurse, poet, or judge thrown into the mix. After four years of study I still felt like a dilettante, underqualified and unmotivated for a life in the theater, but neither did I have an alternate plan, for academic studies, a meaningful career, or the great default—law school.

I wasn’t lazy. I had always worked hard through my college jobs in restaurants, bars, and nightclubs, winning the affection of my bosses and coworkers via sweat, humor, and a willingness to work doubles. Those jobs and those people were more my speed than many of the people I had met at college. I was glad that I had chosen Smith, a college full of smart and dynamic women. But I was finished with what was required of me by birth and background. I had chafed within the safe confines of Smith, graduating by a narrow margin, and I longed to experience, experiment, investigate. It was time for me to live my own life.

I was a well-educated young lady from Boston with a thirst for bohemian counterculture and no clear plan. But I had no idea what to do with all my pent-up longing for adventure, or how to make my eagerness to take risks productive. No scientific or analytical bent was evident in my thinking—what I valued was artistry and effort and emotion. I got an apartment with a fellow theater grad and her nutty artist girlfriend, and a job waiting tables at a microbrewery. I bonded with fellow waitrons, bartenders, and musicians, all equally nubile and constantly clad in black. We worked, we threw parties, we went skinny-dipping or sledding, we fucked, sometimes we fell in love. We got tattoos.

I enjoyed everything Northampton and the surrounding Pioneer Valley had to offer. I ran for miles and miles on country lanes, learned how to carry a dozen pints of beer up steep stairs, indulged in numerous romantic peccadilloes with appetizing girls and boys, and journeyed to Provincetown for midweek beach excursions on my days off throughout the summer and fall.

When winter set in, I began to grow uneasy. My friends from school told me about their jobs and their lives in New York, Washington, and San Francisco, and I wondered what the hell I was doing. I knew I wasn’t going back to Boston. I loved my family, but the fallout of my parents’ divorce was something I wanted to avoid completely. In retrospect a EuroRail ticket or volunteering in Bangladesh would have been brilliant choices, but I stayed stuck in the Valley.
Among our loose social circle was a clique of impossibly stylish and cool lesbians in their mid-thirties. These worldly and sophisticated older women made me feel uncharacteristically shy, but when several of them moved in next door to my apartment, we became friends. Among them was a raspy-voiced midwesterner named Nora Jansen who had a mop of curly sandy-brown hair. Nora was short and looked a bit like a French bulldog, or maybe a white Eartha Kitt. Everything about her was droll—her drawling, wisecracking husky voice, the way she cocked her head to look at you with bright brown eyes from under her mop, even the way she held her ever-present cigarette, wrist flexed and ready for gesture. She had a playful, watchful way of drawing a person out, and when she paid you attention, it felt as if she were about to let you in on a private joke. Nora was the only one of that group of older women who paid any attention to me. It wasn’t exactly love at first sight, but in Northampton, to a twenty-two-year-old looking for adventure, she was a figure of intrigue.

And then, in the fall of 1992, she was gone.

She reappeared after Christmas. Now she rented a big apartment of her own, furnished with brand-new Arts and Crafts–style furniture and a killer stereo. Everyone else I knew was sitting on thrift store couches with their roommates, while she was throwing money around in a way that got attention.

Nora asked me out for a drink, just the two of us, which was a first. Was it a date? Perhaps it was, because she took me to the bar of the Hotel Northampton, the closest local approximation to a swank hotel lounge, painted pale green with white trelliswork everywhere. I nervously ordered a margarita with salt, at which Nora arched a brow.

“Sort of chilly for a marg?” she commented, as she asked for a scotch.

It was true, the January winds were making western Massachusetts uninviting. I should have ordered something dark in a smaller glass—my frosty margarita now seemed ridiculously juvenile.

“What’s that?” she asked, indicating the little metal box I had placed on the table.

The box was yellow and green and had originally held Sour Lemon pastilles. Napoleon gazed westward from its lid, identifiable by his cocked hat and gold epaulettes. The box had served as a wallet for a woman I’d known at Smith, an upperclasswoman who was the coolest person I had ever met. She had gone to art school, lived off campus, was wry and curious and kind and superhip, and one day when I had admired the box, she gave it to me. It was the perfect size for a pack of cigarettes, a license, and a twenty. When I tried to pull money out of my treasured tin wallet to pay for the round, Nora waved it away.

Where had she been for so many months? I asked, and Nora gave me an appraising once-over. She calmly explained to me that she had been brought into a drug-smuggling enterprise by a friend of her sister, who was “connected,” and that she had gone to Europe and been formally trained in the ways of the underworld by an American art dealer who was also “connected.” She had smuggled drugs into this country and been paid handsomely for her work.

I was completely floored. Why was Nora telling me this? What if I went to the police? I ordered another drink, half-certain that Nora was making the entire thing up and that this was the most harebrained seduction attempt ever.
I had met Nora’s younger sister once before, when she came to visit. She went by the name of Hester, was into the occult, and would leave a trail of charms and feathered trinkets made of chicken bones. I thought she was just a Wiccan heterosexual version of her sister, but apparently she was the lover of a West African drug kingpin. Nora described how she had traveled with Hester to Benin to meet the kingpin, who went by the name Alaji and bore a striking resemblance to MC Hammer. She had stayed as a guest at his compound, witnessed and been subject to “witch-doctor” ministrations, and was now considered his sister-in-law. It all sounded dark, awful, scary, wild—and exciting beyond belief. I couldn’t believe that she, the keeper of so many terrifying and tantalizing secrets, was taking me into her confidence.

It was as if by revealing her secrets to me, Nora had bound me to her, and a secretive courtship began. No one would call Nora a classic beauty, but she had wit and charm in excess and was a master at the art of seeming effortlessness. And as has always been true, I respond to people who come after me with clear determination. In her seduction of me, she was both persistent and patient.

Over the months that followed, we grew much closer, and I learned that a number of local guys I knew were secretly working for her, which proved reassuring to me. I was entranced by the illicit adventure Nora represented. When she was in Europe or Southeast Asia for a long period of time, I all but moved into her house, caring for her beloved black cats, Edith and Dum-Dum. She would call at odd hours of the night from the other side of the globe to see how the kitties were, and the phone line would click and hiss with the distance. I kept all this quiet—even as I was dodging questions from my already-curious friends.

Since business was conducted out of town, the reality of the drugs felt like a complete abstraction to me. I didn’t know anyone who used heroin; and the suffering of addiction was not something I thought about. One day in the spring Nora returned home with a brand-new white Miata convertible and a suitcase full of money. She dumped the cash on the bed and rolled around in it, naked and giggling. It was her biggest payout yet. Soon I was zipping around in that Miata, with Lenny Kravitz on the tape deck demanding to know, “Are You Gonna Go My Way?”

Despite (or perhaps because of) the bizarre romantic situation with Nora, I knew I needed to get out of Northampton and do something. My friend Lisa B. and I had been saving our tips and decided that we would quit our jobs at the brewery and take off for San Francisco at the end of the summer. (Lisa knew nothing about Nora’s secret activities.) When I told Nora, she replied that she would love to have an apartment in San Francisco and suggested that we fly out there and house-hunt. I was shocked that she felt so strongly about me.

Just weeks before I was to leave Northampton, Nora learned that she had to return to Indonesia. “Why don’t you come with me, keep me company?” she suggested. “You don’t have to do anything, just hang out.”

I had never been out of the United States. Although I was supposed to begin my new life in California, the prospect was irresistible. I wanted an adventure, and Nora had one on offer. Nothing bad had ever happened to the guys from Northampton who had gone with her to exotic places as errand boys—in fact, they returned with high-flying stories that only a select group could even hear. I rationalized that there was no harm in keeping Nora company. She gave me money to purchase a ticket from San Francisco to Paris and said there would be a ticket to Bali waiting for me at the Garuda Air counter at Charles de Gaulle. It was that simple.

Nora’s cover for her illegal activities was that she and her partner in crime, a goateed guy named Jack, were starting an art and literary magazine—questionable, but it lent itself to vagueness. When I explained to my friends and family that I was moving to San Francisco and would be working and traveling for the magazine, they were uniformly surprised and suspicious of my new job, but I rebuffed their questions, adopting the air of a woman of mystery. As I drove out of Northampton headed west with my buddy Lisa, I felt as if I were finally embarking on my life. I felt ready for anything.

Lisa and I drove nonstop from Massachusetts to the Montana border, taking turns sleeping and driving. In the middle of the night we pulled into a rest stop to sleep, where we awoke to see the incredible golden eastern Montana dawn. I could not remember ever being so happy. After lingering in Big Sky country, we sped through Wyoming and Nevada until finally we sailed over the Bay Bridge into San Francisco. I had a plane to catch.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Fascinating. . . . The true subject of this unforgettable book is female bonding and the ties that even bars can't unbind." —-People

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Orange Is the New Black 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 522 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was so disappointed with this book, I couldn't even finish it. Kerman took absolutely no responsibility for what she did. She offered no explanations besides, wow it's exciting to get involved with a lesbian lover and drug smuggling ring right after college. Um- no it's not. She glosses over her involvement, implied she did nothing wrong, and acted like it's so easy to get away from that life. Just hop on a plane to San Fran and get a new boyfriend! I thought it would get better once her prison sentence started, but I was wrong. There was nothing interesting here. Kerman comes across as an elitist snob who taught the prisoners how to read! She saved them with her college education! Listening to her moan about the indignities of prison was more than I could bear, especially when it seemed like she was going to detail Martha Stewart's stay there. That was enough for me.
VLB72 More than 1 year ago
The author really builds up a terrifying, fear-for-your life-behind-bars story when it seems like the worst that happened was she had her feelings hurt. I've watched documentaries on life in women's prison that were truly terrifying (watch the first episode of the A&E show "Beyond Scared Straight" to see what I was expecting). This book reiterates the cushy life of a Federal prison I had already pictured - nothing out of the ordinary that this author suggests. The author also never owns up to deserving this sentence and had the full support of friends and family. She was embarrassed by all the support she received, which I found insulting considering the number of women who have no one! By the middle of the book, I found the author to come across as superior and unhumbled by her situation, constantly referring to her New York lifestyle of wine and expensive dinners, so I stopped reading.
scorch800 More than 1 year ago
The book was OK, but i feel anyone that has been in a white collar prison could have written it. I kept waiting for something "prison like" to happen to her. She made it sound like everyone was so nice, helpful supportive, they even gave parties. I want to go there!! EVERY member of her family was supportive of her too. Nothing negative was said. EVER. The gaurds yelled but were generally nice. She got a transfer of jobs from the head CO when another CO said something mean to her. Come on, its prison!! I felt the story was boring, and i continued to wait for something interesting to happen to her and it never did. Disappointing read.
crazylilcuban More than 1 year ago
I've been curious about this book for a few months, since stumbling across it one day at the bookstore. I'm definitely glad I finally read it; it's a great story and an interesting look at women's prisons from the view of someone who spent some time in one. Orange is the New Black is the story of Piper Kerman, who is sentenced to 15 months in a federal minimum-security prison for a 10-year old drug offense -- carrying a suitcase of drug money for an ex-girlfriend. Piper isn't exactly someone I was prepared to feel a lot of sympathy towards; she was in a position of privilege (relative to her fellow inmates), having had access to a great lawyer, the support of family and friends, etc. But I ended the book thinking that her story is a great (and important) example of the absurdity of the war on drugs and mandatory minimum sentencing, and so many of the other problems with our criminal justice system. I liked the honesty of her storytelling, and that she was able to portray so well the humanity, friendships, and humor of the women she encountered behind bars. The stories of pedicures, special dinners, birthday surprises, welcoming parties, etc. brought an entirely deeper level of understanding of the women that were imprisoned along with her. Factual research strewn throughout the book's pages also takes this from simply being a memoir of Kerman's stay in Danbury to a source for information on policies and realities of the federal detention system. As someone with an outsider's point of view as well as an insider's view, Piper is able to show the reader just how broken the system is and how little it prepares women for life on the outside. Definitely a recommended read for anyone who is interested in criminal justice and prisons, but also an interesting book in general for anyone else.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
After watching Orange is the New Black on Netflix, I had to read the book. Reading Pipers story, in her own words was pretty intense. It was interesting to see how she tried to fit in, but still stay disconnected at first. It was heartwarming to see her friendship with her roommate blossom. I felt for her family on the outside, especially Larry. He showed what a great guy he was all through the ordeal. I would recommend this book to anyone, and also the series on Netflix. It is well done.
twonotrump More than 1 year ago
this book is a rip off. the lady is a drug smuggler and gets sent to jail. she's in jail the same time martha stewart is being sentenced so I guess she got the idea that she could use this fact to write a book and make a buck. NOT WORTH READING I WANT MY MONEY BACK
Mary Beth Ochss More than 1 year ago
save your money
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book and the author's honesty. I have a couple of friends in jail or prison and so much of what they have shared with me is very similar to what Piper Kerman says of her experience. Great insight into a world many don't experience. Also a good look at our justice system.
TheEsthete More than 1 year ago
I am almost done with this book and have really enjoyed, telling a lot of my friends and coworkers about it too. That's a mark of an interesting story and great narrator, I think. Kerman, as a white, college educated women in her early thirties, speaks in a voice I can relate to, but with incredible sympathy and clarity. Her respect for her fellow prisoners is evident, and in many ways this is more a story about them and the prison system at large than about one woman. The only critique I have is the editing- details, points, or narratives are often repeated throughout chapters, almost as if someone different edited each one without knowing what was already explained at another point in the book. That said, this is well worth a read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book was kind of dragged after awhile. She is a good writer..she captured how she really felt. I did watch the series as well, which made me buy the book. I don't normally watch a show or a movie before reading the book..but i was so addicted to the show and then I found out it was based on a memoir. So curiousity struck...and personally it was disappointing. The show was enticing, fun, and dramatic...the book had its moments. Granted not everything is how it really is in the book but I just thought that this was pretty far from the book. It was quite shocking at how different it was, just my opinion.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
She babbles and whines a bit. I skipped pages upon pages. While she had some valid points on preparing prisoners for re-entry to the real world, she has trouble grasping that her actions no matter how minor and long ago still have ramifications despite how unpleasant she finds those consequences to be. I would like to point out her enabling of other prisoners. She had the oprtunity to teach but instead enabled by cheating for and doing the work for others.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
...the TV show is the other. The Kerman book is interesting, but not as well written as the TV series. Kerman's book is all about Kerman. While she talks about how much her fellow prisoners came to mean to her, they never mean much to us. She doesn't develop their characters, skips rapidly from one to the other. Jenji Kohan's series was fiction, so she had much more latitude to make her characters interesting and eccentric. She combined some of Kerman's characters, modified some, totally created others. There is no one faintly similar to PornStache in the book, for example. The characters had much more depth than in the book. But, fiction is fiction, nonfiction is limited by its facts. The book is a fast read, and a look into a world most of us cannot imagine. Read it, but don't expect to get to know Crazy Eyes, or anyone else.
Butterflies74 More than 1 year ago
Disappointing. Her 'ideal' prison experience seems unrealistic. The only fight she had was over lettuce at the prison salad bar. Come on, really?? I thought Kerman could have used the opportunity to focus on how many prisoners are much less fortunate than herself. She did sprinkle a few lines about how other women would probably return to their criminal lives because they had nothing else to fall back on. I just thought the book was too much about Piper Kerman, and I think Piper Kerman really likes talking about Piper Kerman. The result is a book about an upper middle class white woman who gets caught doing something illegal. She never seems to be truly regretful. She never seems humbled by the experience- in fact she spends most of her time in prison running laps and doing yoga. Is this punishment?? Facts about the prison system, statistics and other true bits of info would have gone a long way here.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book had was boring. The character took no responsibility for how she ended up there. Not sure how it became a best seller. Anyone could have done a better job and she got paid to write this.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Nothing happens. I waited, read the entire book . So let down..
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Boring. I heard great reviews about the the Netflix series so thought I would read the book. I don't plan on finishing it. She made it sound like her experience was a sorority house adventure. Done and done.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was soooo disappointed in this "memoir". If this tale is true, no wonder our prisons are full. Its like one long sleepover...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The characters in this book are well described and very interesting. They are what kept the pages turning. An interesting and valuable view of our criminal justice system.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was very well written and insightful. For anyone that works in the prison system it gives you an idea of how the inmates view the system. A must read for anyone working in a prison.
BillBarryInNewHampshire More than 1 year ago
Piper Kerman's experiences were clearly documented in this eye-opening dissertation of Danbury Federal Prison. I laughed and, yes sometimes I cried, following her time in an obsolete, ineffective penal system here in the US. This is well written and I would be honored someday to have the opportunity to meet "Kermit" and Larry7. Ms. Kerman, thank you for sharing your experiences with us. Bill Barry, New Hampshire
ohiogirlAR More than 1 year ago
This book was a huge disappointment. It was so boring to me. I don't know why the prison Kerman was in was so lenient. It read as if she was in a college dorm. Yet she complained about what the prison lacked. Seriously? Prison is suppose to be a punishment. Kerman thinks it's suppose to be an educational rehabilitation institution. I got news for you, Kerman. You have to pay for that. We don't want our tax money to be wasted on criminals giving them freebies.. You did your crime. You did your time...................GET OVER IT !!!!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Was a drug runner. Got caught. Went to jail. Whined A LOT. Was released early. Making a lot of money writing about her exploits.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
not at all interesting
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Piper spends a lot of time whining and comlainimg while declaring she takes responsibility for her crimes. She whines that prison garb doesn't fit her, the soles of her shoes are too thin, that the food is not to her liking, on and on. Worse she sneers at the guards--if they enforce the rules they are showing no compassion oe are mean. If they don't go by the rules they are lazy. She complains they show no respect for the inmates while she makes fun of their looks and calls them Dirty Pigs. She highly resents being transported to another prison in handcuffs and ankle restraints--evidently forgetting she is one of the many convicted felons being guarded by just a couple guards. She is outraged that armed uniformed marshalls storm a known drug house because small children were there. Obviousy the cops should have knocked politely and explained they were there to arrest the dealers. Clearly she missed the special treatment she got at the five-star hotels when she was transporting all that drug money all around the world. Grow uo and accept you were happy to do the crime--so do the time without complainimg. And then you can move on because you're acting like a self-responsible person.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was waiting for this book to get better but did not. I can count the number of books I started and didn't finish on one hand and this is one of them. She made prison sound like a country club. Blah, blah,blah, "everone was so nice and supportive" blah,blah,blah. Who cares?