An Open Letter to Piper Kerman

Orange IS the new black – clearly a title I SHOULD appreciate given my love for the colour!

Dear Piper, Pipes, Peeper, Blondie, and any other alias you adopted in prison,

When I first heard people talk about the show Orange is the New Black I assumed it was yet another one of those “big city” comedies that featured skinny fashionistas and their over-inflated egos (because we’ve never seen that before.) As someone who’s been trying to convince everyone I know that orange is the new black for 10 years now, I was a little bit excited, but another boring show about the fashion world would definitely not pose a time-suck threat to me.

Then I heard the premise: former lesbian goes to prison where she dons the orange jumpsuit. I finally got the reference and suddenly the show became intriguing. After the first episode I was hooked: I binge-watched (because binge-watching is the new orange), and I thought “Wow! Apart from a few scary moments, this actually sounds a little fun! Where do I sign up?”

Seriously. I actually had several thoughts that ran from “if I went to prison, I could read a TON of books” to “I would lose so much weight.” Flighty thoughts, stupid thoughts. I had ’em all. I needed a slap upside the head.

Thankfully, you provided that metaphorical slap!  After watching the fourth episode I noticed the name Piper Kerman. Not Piper Chapman, the main character. And when I put two and two together (that there was a real Piper out there), I went out and found your book. How had I missed it? Clearly I spent 2010 with my head buried in the sand.

To come clean, and this may disappoint you, you are not nearly as interesting in your book as you are made out to be on Netflix. But you are a whole lot more realistic and a whole lot less naive! I had supposed that many of the stories/subplots/characters based on your experiences were too funny to be true, so I found it grounding to read your memoir. And I’m so glad you don’t share all the graphic moments of love in prison, and that your real-life husband seems to be less petty that your fictionalized one. But can I be candid?

A lot more people will watch Orange is the New Black than read the book. And that’s sad. Not just because of the choosing TV over reading aspect. What I’m really getting at is that you raise really good points in your book about restorative justice, and the need to better prepare inmates for their release and how to be more productive members of society. Sadly, the average viewer doesn’t really give a crap about restorative justice. The average viewer wants a laugh, and OITNB is funny and then some. And because the show is funny and not as violent or scary as HBO’s Oz series, the average viewer will also get a very distorted view of prison, even low-security.

In fact, a fifteen-year-old kid (at-risk or not) watching the show who has never read your book and does not see how a prison sentence keeps giving long after the sentence ends, might actually think that prison life looks kinda fun – or at least not as bad as it is. Heck, I’m a grown woman and I was envisioning myself in orange. Of course, I also have dreams of wearing Walter White’s fedora as my own crystal-meth cooking prop. Either way, crime on TV has become way too romanticized. Every minute has to pulse with excitement. And that means that those important messages you send as an author about the deep flaws with the criminal justice system are transformed into more trivial issues like an inmate’s desire to reopen an outdoor track.

Will I stop watching the show? NOOOOOOOO! But I will remember to take it all with a grain of salt that your memoir provides!

All the best,

Libby

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