This was my first pick of the year for my in-person book club, although technically someone else picked it and then I stole it because I didn’t have any better ideas. You know. I had heard about the Netflix series but not watched it, and I figured reading the book might give me some idea of how interesting the series would be.
I was wrong.
I say this because I found the book to be pretty okay, but everyone in the club who had watched the series first either hated the book or didn’t finish it due to utter boredom or both. So, if you’re thinking about this for your book club, maybe don’t let anyone watch the show first? Or warn them that it’s vastly different?
The book itself is a memoir with a purpose, which is two-for-two in things I am not generally a fan of. But it’s also about the prison system, which is a thing I am happy not to know a lot about, in general, but which is something I am intrigued by, so I was excited to learn new things. The book starts with a quick description of Kerman’s drug-smuggling past and the reasons (or excuses) for why she got involved and how she managed to get out unharmed, until someone told on her to the feds. Then she gets dragged into a painfully slow legal process, and five years later she finally finds herself on her way to a very short (15-month?) stint in minimum security prison.
Right off the bat, Kerman acknowledges that her experiences are not, probably, the average experiences of an inmate even in her own prison. She’s white and upper-class and had a fantastic (and highly-paid) lawyer and has a huge support system of friends who keep her stocked in books and magazines and money for everything she needs. But no matter what her world outside is like, she still has to live in the same cells and eat the same food and do the same work and be denigrated by the same guards as all of her inmate friends and enemies, and so I’m pretty sure her descriptions of those things can be trusted. Some of those descriptions don’t seem so bad: Kerman gets guaranteed meals (though of dubious quality), learns basic electric repair, and has the opportunity to go for runs and do yoga. But the parts where Kerman describes verbal abuse from the guards and other authority figures, or where she talks about having to “squat and cough” to prove she’s not smuggling contraband after a visit from her family or friends, paint a pretty bleak picture. It is clear that the punishment of jail is that you get a place to live for a while, but not a place where you can live. And to imagine doing that for years or decades, as some of Kerman’s neighbors had to? No thank you!
Kerman does describe some terrible prison experiences when she has to transfer from her cushy “camp” to some larger, higher-security prisons in preparation for a court date, but I think that the most horrifying parts of the book are when she describes how her minimum-security friends are prepared for release. These women are given the most cursory of explanations of how to interview for a job or apply for an apartment without learning where they can go to find jobs or homes or what to do while they’re waiting to be accepted to either. They’re taught not by professional social workers or employment specialists but by people who work in the prison, and they are never told how to stop associating with the people who got them in trouble in the first place.
It’s a tough book, and it is certainly not fun or entertaining, but I found it to be really enlightening, and I think most of my book-club-mates did, too, even if they wanted to have watched the show instead. File this under: Memoirs that are Not Terrible.
Recommendation: For people who want to know more about the prison system from a rich white person’s perspective.