In the opening montage for Orange Is the New Black, the made-for-Netflix series based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, disembodied lips of different races and ethnicities mouth the words to Regina Spektor’s song “You’ve Got Time.” The message is clear: we are all the same (we all have lips, I suppose). The faces are both stripped of identity, yet are identifiably female. The introduction sets the stage for the show’s focus on the idea of a universal feminine experience. From the illicit groping between Piper (played by Taylor Schilling) and Alex (Laura Prepon) to the hair salon run by Sophia (the awesome Laverne Cox), the show treats its viewers to a titillating version of female camaraderie that might exist on the WB or in the catalogues of a Seven Sisters college.
In fact, Piper Kerman (renamed “Chapman” for the Netflix series) invites the comparison to an all-women’s collegiate experience herself in her memoir. “I was surviving,” she writes about her time in a federal correctional facility in Danbury, Conn., “perhaps [because] I had gone to an elite women’s college. Single-sex living has certain constants, whether it’s upscale or down and dirty…There was less bulimia and more fights…but the same feminine ethos was present — empathetic camaraderie and bawdy humor on good days, and histrionic drama…on bad.”
The series reflects this same “all women be crazy” ethos, and the comparison to college dormitory living does seems apt. The viewing experience is really a lot like Felicity in its gossipy will-they-or-won’t-they feel, down to the symbolic meaning attributed to hairstyles (for some reason, this is the sine qua non of feminine culture on popular television). It’s also deliciously, compulsively watchable, not just because the acting is compelling, but also because it reinforces what the audience would like to view as a universal truth: there isn’t much difference between people on the inside and people on the outside. The success of both the show and the memoir evince the public’s current insatiable thirst for prison narratives — so long as they aren’t too violent or dirty. (Kerman inoculates her memoir, and the show, against any charges of girl-on-girl sexual assault: Oz this is not.) Still, one wonders, is this perceived similarity between those on the inside and us on the outside just to make us (liberal, middle-class, educated) feel better (or worse) about the prison state that is the U.S., circa now?
The prison narrative has been around for a long time. Not only have great authors spent time in prison (Thomas More, Marquis de Sade) but great works have also been written about prisons (The Count of Monte Cristo, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich). “Prison lit,” as a dedicated genre consisting of first-person accounts of trial and punishment, seems to have come about around the 16th century as large numbers of literate, educated dissenters spent time behind bars; they wrote as a way to spark conversation about the role of incarceration in society. Not coincidentally, the 16th century also saw the rise of imprisonment as legal punishment. On top of the religious and political minorities, there were also greater numbers of vagrants and debtors who were locked up.
Similarly, the American tradition of “prison lit” has its roots in social protest. Thoreau, in Resistance to Civil Government, wrote that, “[u]nder a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison,” launching the idealistic notion that great thinking and writing come from behind prison walls. Early 20th century prison writings were generally by activists who sought to expose the inequities of the justice system. My Life in Prison by Donald Lowrie was one of the first widely-read first-person accounts of prison life. Lowrie was sentenced to 15 years at San Quentin for burglary (he was out in 10 on good behavior). Lowrie attempts to chronicle the daily humiliations of prison life while also maintaining the idea that he wasn’t a born criminal, but rather a victim of bad circumstances that conspired against him: “And despite a long term in prison, I am not yet a criminal.” He separates himself and his fellow inmates from their crimes: “But I know that all men are human.” This idea of a constant humanity resonates with the same appeal as other “outsider” narratives.
During the Civil Rights era, prison literature became a way to unite both individual struggles with political ones, although the works were arguably still the product of a few great minds. The Autobiography of Malcom X, for example, galvanized a movement. Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice similarly links the African-American male prison experience with the greater historical atrocities of colonialism and slavery, crimes where African-Americans lost their ability to move freely. Malcolm Braly’s On the Yard, published in 1967, is heralded as one of the greatest prison novels, reveling in psychological verity and presenting an array of criminal “types” familiar to any outside audience today.
Unsurprisingly, the rise of prison narratives in America coincided with a dramatic increase in prison populations during the ’70s, putatively as a reaction to the anti-establishment mores of the ’60s. This trend continues today at least partially because of popular anti-crime campaigns, the “war on drugs” and “tough on crime” political rhetoric. Various memoirs and stories emerged to expose the horrendous conditions of most penitentiaries; not coincidentally, many of them focus on social conditions preceding incarceration, like poverty, lack of family support, substance abuse, homelessness, and exposure to criminal activity. Many of these narratives are written by African American writers addressing a presumptively white audience and take on a semi-educational stance not unlike slave narratives: John Edgar Wideman’s Brothers and Keepers (1984), for example, in addition to the works mentioned above.
One role of the prison narrative is to combat the dehumanizing process that is the modern prison system. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault explained incarceration as a way for the State to maintain its absolute power and authority over its citizens. Certainly, penal institutions try their very best to effectively erase the individual as we know it. For this reason, prisons separate inmates by race, women are housed separately from men, and a series of bureaucratic trials are imposed — bodies are counted at certain times of day, sleeping situations are altered, and procedural delays are rampant. Some states also have versions of various laws that prevent author-inmates from profiting off of their writing, which limits free expression, a Constitutional ideal that we profess to hold dear.
It makes sense, then, that prison literature today seeks to reaffirm the triumph of the human spirit, so to speak. Kerman, as an example, continually reasserts her ability to maintain her can-do pluckiness: “I hated the control the prison exercised over my life, but the only way to fight it was in my head.” Rather than dwell on her misfortune or become too accustomed to prison life, Kerman stages a protest, Oprah-style: no one can keep her down. She still has her favorite things: her radio, her running, her prison “cheesecake,” and the companionship of the other women.
At the same time, the inmate-author is in a unique position to testify as to the conditions and injustices rampant in the system. Interestingly, contemporary prison narratives rarely claim that incarceration is wrong in itself, but rather focus on cruel and inhumane treatment. Kerman relates in detail the administrative nightmare that is the judicial process — she pleads guilty and surrenders but must wait over a year for her sentence to begin. Yet, she does not ever argue that she did not deserve punishment. The PEN Prison Writing Program’s website includes thoughtful essays about concerns like solitary confinement and the death penalty without exhorting the reader to rethink the concept of the penitentiary more generally. No one, it seems, wants to argue that murderers and rapists don’t belong in prison.
For example, in writing about the death penalty, J. Michael Stanfield Jr. speaks directly to us, the outsiders: “Okay, so maybe I’m coming off as just a tad bit facetious here, but it doesn’t change the fact that murder, even the government-approved variety, is still murder, by the very definition of the law. What’s more (and I’m going out on a limb here), capital punishment is immoral, and it’s a sin of our modem, civilized society.” The reader of this cannot help but be morally implicated, particularly since the political reality is that prisoners cannot vote (and most states limit the ability of ex-felons to vote in some manner). In Stanfield’s piece, the reader, who is viewed as potentially complicit with the government, becomes an agent for moral decision-making: we can decide that murder, in all its varieties, is immoral and, therefore, seek to eliminate the death sentence. Yet, Stanfield doesn’t argue that crimes (like murder) are undeserving of punishment; in fact, he says quite the opposite.
Prison narratives exert their moral authority by emphasizing their “truth.” Whether the piece is fiction or not, readers want to feel as though the information or story is conveyed with some deeper understanding, similar to the way readers want to read about war but never actually want to go there. One way that present-day prison writing emphasizes the notion of “truth” is by sheer volume. Infamous bastions like San Quentin publish anthologies of inmates’ stories and verse, and the PEN Program fosters prison writing’s “restorative and rehabilitative” powers and sponsors writing contests. Wally Lamb has assembled two anthologies (Couldn’t Keep It to Myself and I’ll Fly Away) of work by women inmates in a Connecticut women’s maximum-security prison. In these cases, the emphasis is on a collection of writing, a community on the inside speaking truth to us on the outside. Rather than one great writer, like Thomas More, writing for a small intellectual elite, these anthologies are mass marketed for a consumer audience of liberals. We cannot deny the power of these stories because there are just too many of them; however, the highly consumable quality of the publications — not entirely unlike the idea of watching a whole season of Orange at one sitting — makes it less likely we will act.
In truth, the American prison system is in crisis. The number of people in prison since the 1980s has more than tripled, to 751 per 100,000 people (that’s nearly 1 percent of our population). The U.S. puts more people behind bars than any other country in the world. We house half of the world’s prison population. Over half of those in prison are African-American or Hispanic. There are more black men within the various incarnations of incarceration — prison, probation or parole — than there were slaves during the height of slavery. For many urban, minority communities, prison is simply a fact of everyday life (as is prison rape, if evidenced by the number of times detectives on Law & Order: SVU threaten accused rapists and pedophiles with it). The penitentiary is both a subculture and the dominant culture all in one.
Whatever you may think about the causes of the prison population explosion or what should be done about it, America has long held contradictory views about incarceration. On the one hand, incarceration is perhaps ideally all about rehabilitation: after a certain amount of time (not necessarily commensurate with the mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines), we assume or believe, given evidence, that an offender can grow to regret his crimes and become a productive member of society.
There are a lot of problems with that view, not the least of which being that overcrowded prisons seem unlikely to produce anything productive. It does, however, explain the surge in prison programs that teach inmates job training, anger management, art, drama, music, writing, etc. The idea is that these programs reduce recidivism, and most of them seem to do so. Reducing recidivism is popular among the public and politicians alike — while no one wants to be seen as “soft on crime” (especially when it comes to violent offenders — it’s a bit easier to make the case for nonviolent offenses), arguing that programs prevent ex-cons from returning to prison reduces costs all around.
But rehabilitation is at war with the other main ideology driving prison sentencing, retribution. In other words, people should be punished for what they do. This is, after all, the American way — submitting oneself to a greater authority (God and/or the state), manfully accepting that one has done wrong and deserves punishment. In his book Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire, author Robert Perkinson traces this foundation back to slavery — subjugate, discipline, punish (especially African-Americans).
Yet, even more contrarily, the manner in which prisons dehumanize individuals — stripping them of possessions, bodily integrity, identity, community, and dignity — confuses the issue of retribution. If someone who commits a crime is a monster, someone with whom we don’t want to identify, then the arduous procedural elements of the criminal justice process — the hearings, the trial, the parole board hearings, the write-ups for good or bad behavior, the psychological profiles — simply impede the public’s desire for good old retribution. Hangings in the public square at least are consistent, and possibly more humane than solitary confinement in a supermax. As some said, or thought, when Ariel Castro hung himself in his cell, good riddance. In other words, he was so subhuman that he didn’t deserve the chance to be stripped of his humanity. It’s often even the same voices who so quickly demonize unlikable offenders — people who, say, shoot down innocent civilians in a movie theater or plant bombs at the end of the Boston marathon — that will also exhort the virtues of rehabilitation. Furthermore, advances in science may well indicate that the causes of violent behavior are at least partially biological, which may mean that rehabilitation is simply asking the wrong questions.
Retribution is fundamentally inconsistent with rehabilitation. Retribution relies on a theory of individual choice, arguing that wrong-doers deserve punishment, while rehabilitation accepts that some people may not have been capable of making other choices at that moment (but they should know better in the future once they are schooled in guilt). You cannot think that people deserve to be punished for wrongdoing and simultaneously believe that people who commit offenses are wrong-headed and need guidance to find the proper path. And, yet, we do.
You can see these conflicting ideologies within any prison memoir. In the PEN anthologies and others like it, the author chooses how much he would like to reveal about his crime and the events which landed him in prison. Does it affect our reading of the work? It only seems to serve as a way to further sell the outside audience on an authentic experience while also making the author an autonomous agent capable of self-reflection, even though that self-reflection is state-imposed. Part of the current allure of the authorial gesture in contemporary prison writing is that the writer is permitted to become someone else — the past is in the past. As the tagline of an O magazine article on Wally Lamb’s work with inmate-writers states: “In prison, they are robbers and murders. On paper, they are women not so different from the rest of us.” Even if the crime is revealed, usually a redemptive gesture follows to argue that this crime merely represents one bad decision or moment; the writer’s life is (or now is) composed of more than that.
This rehabilitative gesture allows us, the readers, to see the inmate as like us on the outside (presumably the readership of O magazine does not include large numbers of incarcerated individuals). I was at a performance in San Quentin where inmate-actors all gave their own short pieces based on their life experiences. Someone in the audience said, “It made me think about my own life.” This move — my, he is relatable/yes, I am just like you — explains the enduring appeal of these narratives. Wouldn’t we all like to truly understand our motives and improve ourselves if only we had the time to do so? And in order to make this mental turn, to go from seeing oneself as worthless to worthy of someone’s time and attention, requires a belief in personal agency, both the ability to commit crimes of one’s own free will and to seek forgiveness for them. The writer must feel the pain of his acts, an action consistent with parole board hearing where an inmate must express requisite apologies.
At the same time, a prison narrative must reinforce its boundaries, physical and emotional. In other words, since the very function of a prison is to display the mighty power of the state, a prison narrative must focus on the day-to-day, mundane nature of life behind bars. In Kerman’s memoir, I lost count of the number of times she runs around the track. Bray’s novel spends many pages on the mundane details of prison life alongside the portrayal of each character’s inner struggles. The potential for growth in a prison narrative comes from the interior journey. Since prison, by its very nature, circumscribes a person’s ability to move freely (and is very, very boring), writers have ample opportunity to reflect on past events and motivations.
Part of what makes Orange so interesting is the fact that Piper Kerman is the presumptive consumer of her own material. She is white, liberal, educated, scornful of the trappings of uneducated femininity (like big weddings), with just a bit of a wild streak (which I like to fancy I have myself). This places her in the unique position to both testify to her own dehumanizing treatment and advocate for the better treatment for others who cannot achieve her level of discourse.
It’s a forgone conclusion that Piper is dreadfully sorry for what she has done. She writes this over and over. Yet, is this memoir a rehabilitative one? Did Piper need to spend 16 months in a federal prison to learn that being involved in a drug cartel was a bad idea? Per the book, no. Piper spends little time dwelling on why she made that decision — instead, at moments, she seems to glorify the freewheeling, thug life she had. She very judiciously states that she is “no better” than anyone else she meets in prison.
And yet, in saying so, she clearly marks herself as not from the inside. Her time in prison is like a student spending a study abroad trip in South America, a dip into an exotic culture. What about the other inmates? Do they exercise the same autonomous agency that Kerman claims she possesses? Both the show and the books seem to argue no. The other inmate characters’ crimes are as accidents, the wrong place at the wrong time, born of circumstances like poverty, homelessness, and drug addiction. The show deals with this neatly — it provides each character an intriguing backstory, giving them psychological motives for their crimes, but also humanizing them, so that the audience can imagine, if they wish, that the characters have the ability to reclaim their non-criminal individual identities. Yet Kerman/Chapman herself never wrestles with this question of her own agency, so she is always an outsider, placing any authenticity of her claim to self-improvement in question.
Since the writing of the memoir and the production of the Netflix series, Kerman mostly devotes herself to advocating for improvement in prison conditions, a worthy goal. Certainly, Kerman and other writers of prison narratives are not defending the current penal system; the contradictions in their narratives are related to the contradictions inherent in the criminal justice system. But as a consumer audience, we can wonder whether these works really serve the political purposes they’d like.
We must acknowledge that, like all creative works, prison narratives are intended for consumption by readers like us. Do we read them just to exorcise our guilt? That seems to take away from the profoundly moving nature of the genre. Whether it’s because people are seeking authenticity of individual expression in an era where so much feels prepackaged and marketed or whether it’s because incarceration speaks to some kind of universal human experience, I am not sure. But the emotions are not manufactured. During the performance I attended at San Quentin, people in the audience were profoundly, genuinely moved — I saw tears and handholding, a vast swelling of catharsis among the non-incarcerated audience. Even I wanted to believe.
Image Credit: Flickr/wallyg