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Author Spotlight: Piper Kerman, author of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, on Mother’s Day

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

Kerman_Orange is the New Black_Netflix Tie In May is officially here and that means Mother’s Day is right around the corner. In her memoir, Orange is the New Black, Piper Kerman reflects on Mother’s Day during her time in prison. Enjoy the excerpt below!

“Mothers and Daughters”

Mother’s Day was off the chain at the Camp. From the moment we awoke, every woman wished another “Happy Mother’s Day” . . . repeatedly. I quickly gave up explaining that I had no children and just said, “Happy Mother’s Day to you!” About eighty percent of the women in U.S. prisons have children, so odds were I was right.

A lot of women had crocheted long-stem red roses for their “prison mamas” or friends. Some women organized themselves into somewhat formalized “family” relationships with other prisoners, especially mother-daughter pairs. There were a lot of little clans at Danbury. The younger women relied on their “moms” for advice, attention, food, commissary loans, affection, guidance, even discipline. If one of the young ones was misbehaving, she might get directed by another irritated prisoner, “Go talk to your mama and work your shit out!” Or if the kid was really out of control with her mouth or her radio or whatever, the mama might get the request, “You need to talk to your daughter, ’cause if she don’t get some act-right, I’ma knock her out!”

My de facto prison “family” revolved around Pop. It exemplified the complex ways that family trees grow behind bars, like topiaries trained into very odd shapes. My immediate “sibling” was Toni, the new town driver who had replaced Nina as Pop’s bunkie. By automatic extension Rosemarie, Toni’s best buddy, was another sibling—I thought of them as the Italian Twins. But Pop had many other “children,” including Big Boo Clemmons, the even bigger Angelina Lewis, and Yvonne who worked with Pop in the kitchen. I took a particular liking to Yvonne; we called each other “the sister I never wanted.” All of Pop’s black “daughters” called her Mama. All of the white ones called her Pop. She didn’t have any Spanish daughters, though she did have Spanish pals from her own peer group.

Motherhood in prison was revered but also complicated by separation, guilt, and shame. To my eye, my fellow prisoners were mostly ordinary poor or middle-class mommies, grandmas, and even great-grandmothers, and yet some of them were serving very long sentences—five years, seven years, twelve years, fifteen years. I knew that, by virtue of being in the minimum-security Camp, they were unlikely to have been convicted of violent crimes. As I watched my neighbors, young women who lacked even a high school education, with their children in the visiting room, I found myself asking again and again (in my head), What could she possibly have done to warrant being locked up here for so long? Criminal masterminds they were not.

In the three months since my arrival in Danbury I had seen a number of pregnant women become mothers; in February young Doris was the vessel of my first prison nativity. I had never seen a woman in labor before and was both mesmerized and horrified to watch Doris enter a zone in which her body and her baby were taking over, regardless of surroundings. To my fascination, the population of the Camp snapped to attention and stepped in to help her as much
as anyone could. She had a half-dozen surrogate midwives hovering over her at any given moment, checking to see what she needed, coaching her on how to get more comfortable, relating stories of their own labors, and reporting on her progress to an anxious audience of prisoners. The staff certainly wasn’t paying much attention to what was happening; prison births were no big deal to them.

It was Doris’s first child, and all she wanted to do was curl up in her bunk, which apparently was not a good thing for her or the baby struggling to be born. Older women took turns walking with her up and down the long main hall of the Camp, talking to her gently, telling stories, and cracking jokes. Observing keenly was Doris’s roommate, also heavy with her first child and due any day. They both looked scared.

The next morning, as the contractions were growing closer, Doris was taken off to the hospital in handcuffs. In many places in the United States pregnant female prisoners are kept chained in shackles during their deliveries, a brutal and barbaric practice, though this was not the case for poor Doris. After many hours of labor she gave birth to a nine-pound baby boy in Danbury Hospital and was brought back to prison immediately, pale and drawn and sad. Her mother took the baby back to the rural outpost where she lived, eight hours away. There wasn’t much chance that the new arrival would see his father anytime soon— Doris told me that her baby’s daddy had just been picked up on three outstanding warrants. Fortunately she was due to go home within the year.

I hadn’t witnessed anything at Danbury to allay my fear of childbirth, but for the first time I had some tiny insight on the motherchild relationship. The single most reliable way to get another prisoner to smile was to ask her about her children. There were always families in the visiting room; this was both the best and the worst thing about the many hours I spent there. Young children were growing up while their mothers did time, trying to have a relationship via fifteen-minute phone calls and the hours spent in visitation. I never saw these women look happier than when they were with their children, playing with the small collection of plastic toys kept in the corner and sharing Fritos and Raisinets from the vending machine. When visiting hours were over, it was gut-wrenching to watch the goodbyes. In one year a child could change from a squirming baby to a boisterous talkative toddler and mothers would watch football championships and prom nights come and go from the distant sidelines, along with their children’s graduations, wedding days, and funerals.

As tough as it could be for a prisoner to visit with her children, it was also hard for parents to see their babies locked up. There were so many young girls among us, eighteen and nineteen years old. Some of these kids had been heading to a place like Danbury for some time, but one bad decision could suddenly land a young woman in a merciless and inflexible system. A lack of priors and a history of general good conduct didn’t matter at all— federal mandatory minimums dictated sentences, and if you were pleading guilty (the vast majority of us did), the only person with real leeway in determining what kind of time you would do was your prosecutor, not your judge. Consequently there were sad-looking parents visiting their kids— though not mine. My mother was like a ray of sunshine in that

For our visits every week my mother was always dressed immaculately in soft, cheerful colors, with her blond hair carefully styled, her makeup perfectly applied, wearing a piece of jewelry that I had given her for a distant Christmas or birthday. We would talk for hours about my brother, her students, my uncles and aunts, the family dog. I would fill her in on whatever new electrician’s skill I’d learned that week. She always seemed perfectly comfortable in the visiting room, and every time she visited, I got comments from other prisoners afterward. “Your mama is so nice, you’re a lucky girl,” or “That’s your mother? Get out! I thought it was your sister!” I had been hearing that one most of my adult life. People would often say it to her as well, and even though she had received that compliment approximately three thousand times before, it always made her glow. In the past, this familiar exchange made me feel resentful. Do I look like I’m in my late forties or fifties? But now I enjoyed watching her pleasure when people drew a close comparison between us. Even with this disaster I had dragged us all into, she was still proud to be my mother. It occurred to me that I had never seen my mother defeated, even when life presented difficulties and disappointments. I hoped that our resemblance extended beyond our blue eyes.

My father, more than a thousand miles away, was able to come visit me when the academic year was over. His relief when he saw me was palpable. I have always been a daddy’s girl, and I could tell how it pained him to see his baby, even a baby in her thirties, in a place like this. We still enjoyed our time, eating peanut M&Ms while I spun all the intrigues of the place out for him to absorb. The difference between our weekly phone calls and an actual in-person conversation was like a text message versus a weekend-long visit. If there was one silver lining to this whole mess, it was the reminder of my family’s greatness.

I had a lovely visit with my mother that Mother’s Day— althoughthe visiting room was deranged. I had never seen it so crowded with large family groups. A lot of women in Danbury had families who lacked the resources to come and visit often, even though many of them lived in New York City. Tired grandmas and aunties, taking care of their daughter’s or sister’s children during their prison stays, had a very hard time marshaling toddlers and teenagers on the buses, trains,
and taxis necessary to get to Danbury— the trip could take four hours each way from the city and cost money. But Mother’s Day was special, and children of every age swarmed the place, and a cacophony of conversations flowed in many languages and accents. In the midst of all of it was my mother, smiling happily when she spotted me walking into the madness.

Season 2 of Orange is the New Black airs on Netflix June 6!

Reading Guide: ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK by Piper Kerman

Friday, September 13th, 2013

Kerman_Orange is the New Black_Netflix Tie In “Kerman’s book is a fascinating look down the rabbit hole that is prison… Unforgettable.” –People

The world is buzzing with news about Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman. Whether you and your book club are picking up the book for the first time or if the Netflix series inspired you to re-read this memoir, Random House Reader’s Circle has you covered! We have exclusive discussion questions for you and your book club to enjoy.

Questions for Discussion

1. Piper, a graduate of Smith College and, arguably, an unlikely candidate for incarceration, gets involved in a drug ring shortly after graduation. This dangerous activity stands in sharp contrast to her previously safe, law-abiding life. What do you think precipitated Piper’s foray into crime? What might have made the drug world so enticing?

2. In Chapter 2, Piper seeks refuge from the underworld in San Francisco. What support does Piper have that allows her to change the direction of her postcollegiate life successfully? How do her circumstances contrast with those of the women she meets in Danbury?

3. Piper is indicted for a crime she committed several years earlier and is sentenced to more than a year in prison. At the time of her incarceration, she is a self-aware woman with a steady job and solid, fulfilling relationships. Once Piper meets other prisoners, she expresses consternation over many of their sentences, which often seem disproportionate to the crimes committed. For example, prisoners receive fifty-four months for Internet fraud and two years for a marijuana charge, but a guard convicted of sexually abusing prisoners receives one month. Women from poor communities often seem to be serving much longer sentences than middle-class prisoners. How do these sentences, including Piper’s, fit in with your idea of prison’s role in society, and the purpose of punishment? What are the biggest crimes in this story, who commits them, and what is their punishment?

4. Many crimes related to the sale of illegal drugs are nonviolent crimes; how do they compare with the sale of legal products that are unhealthy or dangerous, like cigarettes or guns? Nonviolent drug offenses are the reason the majority of the women in the book are in prison; should low-level nonviolent drug offenders be put in prison?

5. Piper’s first taste of prison comes when she surrenders herself to the guards at Danbury. Throughout the memoir, the prisoners endure a number of humiliating tasks at the hands of the guards—arguably, the most vivid being the naked squat/cough ritual after every visitation. Interestingly, though, the incidents that most affect Piper seem to be when one guard refuses to call her by her last name at mail call, sexual harassment from her boss on the electrical job, and a gruff, uncomfortable gynecological exam. Why do you think that is? How do these humiliating encounters shape her view of prison life and of the psychic effects of incarceration on prisoners?

6. The women in the prison have a very definite social system of their own. What purposes do those social systems serve for the prisoners? How do things like food and humor play a role in prisoners’ survival? What special strengths and vulnerabilities do women have when they are in tight-knit single-sex communities such as Danbury? How do you think the needs (emotional and otherwise) of incarcerated men and women differ, and how do their needs differ once they return home?

7. Piper has to learn the ins and outs of prison quickly. Her fellow inmates are nothing if not savvy prisoners. While the coping skills they teach Piper come in very handy behind bars, they don’t translate well into the free world. What kind of education were these women missing in prison? What skills could they have been given that would have helped them establish themselves as productive members of society? How can people convicted of felonies be successfully reintegrated into society?

8. At the end of Chapter 8, Piper discusses the relationship between guards and prisoners. How do you think prison guards can maintain their humanity when the very requirement of their job is to restrict the rights of individuals? Are there any guards or persons of authority in Piper’s story who favorably distinguish themselves by their behavior?

9. Clearly the author’s race, education, and socioeconomic status have an impact on her experience. Should that matter when we consider her story? Do those factors make her story more or less credible? What’s the difference between Danbury FCI, where the author spends most of her time, and the correctional facilities she is transferred to toward the end of the story? Does Piper change in these harsher environments?

10. Should prisons be run by private, for-profit corporations as they are in many states? It is currently legal to make a profit imprisoning the mentally ill, poor, and addicted—but is it ethical?

11. After reading Orange Is the New Black, do you think our prison system is successful? Do you think its dramatic growth over the last thirty years—nearly 400 percent more Americans in prison—is a good thing for the country? Why or why not? What do you think the author is trying to accomplish by telling her story?

Need more ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK in your life? Never fear- stay up to date with Piper on Facebook and Twitter.

Fan of the Netflix series? Catch updates on their Twitter feed!

“In Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, Kerman puts us inside, from the first strip search…to the prison-issue unwashed underwear to the cucumbers and raw cauliflower that count as salad…. This book is impossible to put down because she could be you. Or your best friend. Or your daughter.” –Los Angeles Times

Tell RHRC What You Think About ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK by Piper Kerman

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

Kerman_Orange is the New Black_Netflix Tie In

“Kerman’s book is a fascinating look down the rabbit hole that is prison… Unforgettable.” –People

The fan support for Orange is the New Black has been huge surrounding the hit Netflix series since its debut in July. We know many of you have read Piper Kerman’s memoir with your book club in the past three years, and we want to hear from you! If you are willing, please share your thoughts, stories, and/or photos with us in the document below or join the conversation with us on Facebook and Twitter. You can also submit your feedback to us at rhrc@randomhouse.com.

There is lots to talk about with this book, and we are excited to hear what you think!

As a special thank you, we will select 5 winners to receive free copies of the book for you (or to share with a friend.)

“Orange transcends the memoir genre’s usual self-centeredness to explore how human beings can always surprise you. You’d expect bad behavior in prison. But it’s the moments of joy, friendship and kindness that the author experienced that make Orange so moving and lovely…You sense [Kerman] wrote Orange to make readers think not about her but her fellow inmates. And, boy, does she succeed.” –USA Today

Disclaimer: By submitting your feedback, you give Random House Reader’s Circle the permission to use your comments and first name in promotional material. Random House will not share any additional personal information with an outside party. Thank you.

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison

Friday, March 4th, 2011

kerman_piper“Memoirs are often about difficult things in a person’s life. In my situation, my story starts with about the stupidest, most immoral thing I’ve ever done, one with terrible consequences.”

In 1993, Piper Kerman, a recent graduate of Smith College, made a reckless decision that would alter the course of her life: she accompanied her then-girlfriend, “an impossibly cool” older woman named Nora, who earned her unending stack of cash through drug smuggling, on a handful of lengthy trips. While Nora met up with her “connections” in Europe and Asia, Kerman roamed the streets and hit the beaches. But, after carrying a suitcase of cash across the Atlantic, Kerman realized she was in over her head and she escaped to San Francisco to piece her life back together.

Five years later, she was happily living in NewYork City with her then-boyfriend (and now husband, SMITH founder Larry Smith). Her period of criminal activity was short, nonviolent—and behind her. Or so Kerman thought. Then in May 1998, two Customs agents arrived at her door.Years of legal delays later, she was sentenced to fifteen months in a federal prison, thirteen months with good behavior. After serving time in three facilities—including a trip on Con Air—she was released in March 2005.

Orange is the new blackOrange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison is Kerman’s poignant and powerful memoir of those months. It’s fascinating to follow Kerman as she navigates the endless lists of rules, petty prison guards, repetitive jobs for pennies an hour (used to buy soap or a radio at the commissary), and that all-important mail call that make up life in the correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut. But it’s her rendering of her fellow prisoners—their surprise birthday parties with homemade cards and microwave cheesecake, the ways they bring hope and humor to the inside, and the makeshift families they create—that allows Orange to transcend the prison genre and become a story about the remarkable capacity for strength and resilience of Kerman and the women she met in prison. I spoke with Kerman over the phone from her home in Brooklyn about her decision to focus on her time behind bars, what emotional blank spot is at the bottom of almost every crime, and why more than 7 million Americans can directly relate to her book.

Click here to read the full text of the interview from Smith Magazine. Orange is the New Black is now available in paperback.

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