Autodidact: self-taught


Orange is the New Black

by V. L. Craven

Orange is the New Black Book cover

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

-001- p8. 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.
-002- p21. Confronted with the end of my life as I knew it, I adopted my standard pose when in over my head and scared: I closed myself off, telling myself that I had gotten into this mess and it was no one’s fault but my own. I would have to figure out a solution on my own.
-003- pp21-2. What I had done was beyond their comprehension, and I sat in my grandparents’ living room rigid with shame at the emergency family meeting, while they questioned me for hours, trying to make some sort of sense of what was happening. ‘What on earth did you do with the money?’ my grandmother asked me finally, mystified.
‘Well, Grandmother, I wasn’t really in it for money.’ I answered lamely.
‘Oh, Piper, for heaven’s sake!’ she snapped. Not only was I a shame and a disappointment, I was an idiot too.
-004- p35. I had only the most tenuous idea of what might happen next, but I knew that I would have to be brave. Not foolhardy, not in love with risk and danger, not making ridiculous exhibitions of myself to prove that I wasn’t terrified–really, genuinely brave. Brave enough to be quiet when quiet was called for, brave enough to observe before flinging myself into something, brave enough to not abandon my true self when someone else wanted to seduce or force me in a direction I didn’t want to go, brave enough to stand my ground quietly. I waited an unquantifiable amount of time while trying to be brave.
-005- p37. I later figured out that everyone looks either thuggish and murderous or terrified and miserable in their prison ID photo. I’m proud to say that, against all odds, I fell into the former category, though I felt like the latter.
-006- p59. Hugging and kissing your visitors (no tongue!) was permitted at the beginning and end of the visit. Some guards would allow hand-holding; some would not. If a guard was having a bad day, week, or life, we would all feel it in that bleak, linoleum-floored visiting room.
-007- pp83-4. …prison is all about waiting in line. For many women, I realized, this was nothing new. If you had the misfortune of having the government intimately involved with your life, whether via public housing or Medicaid or food stamps, then you’d probably already spent an insane amount of your life in line.
-008- p100. There was less bulimia and more fights than I had known as an undergrad, but the same feminine ethos was present–empathetic camaraderie and bawdy humor on good days, and histrionic dramas coupled with meddling, malicious gossip on bad days.
-009- p100. Crazy concentrations of people inspire crazy behavior.
-010- p104. …I didn’t want anyone to think I was racist–although nobody else in the Camp seemed to have the slightest compunction about expressing the broadest racial generalizations.
‘Honey,’ another prisoner drawled to me, ‘everyone here is just trying to live up to the worst cultural stereotype possible.’
-011- pp105-6. Some of the faithful had a distinct aspect of roostering, loudly proclaiming that they were going to pray on any number of topics, how God was walking beside them through their incarceration, how Jesus loved sinners, and so on. Personally, I thought that one could thank the Lord at a lower volume and perhaps with less self-congratulation. You could worship loudly and still act pretty lousy…
-012- p117. Colleen had a big, shit-eating grin on her face as she asked Carlotta, ‘So? What’s you think about that little toy I gave you last week? Pretty sweet, huh?’ Carlotta laughed, a rich, satisfied laugh, and they kept walking.
I cocked an eye at Pennsatucky. ‘Diiiiildoooos,’ she drawled in her backwoods twang. I must have looked intrigued, because she hastened to explain: ‘Colleen prob’ly carved somethin’ nutty out of a carrot or something. Different than the usual.’
‘Which is?’
‘Pencil with an Ace bandage wrapped around it, with one a’ them finger condoms from the infirmary over the whole deal.’
‘Doesn’t sound that enjoyable.’
‘Huh. When I was locked up in county, they used to make dildos out of a spork, a maxipad, and a finger from a rubber glove!’ Another use for maxipads revealed. The industrious hobbyists of the penal system would work with whatever materials they had.
‘Desperate times, desperate measures, eh Pennsatucky?’
‘Whatever  that means.’
-013- p120. Gay Pornstar was a strutting sadist with a flattop hairdo, close-set eyes, and a bristling mustache who resembled nothing so much as a Village People tribute-band reject.
-014- 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!’ Of 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!’
-015- p138. …in the federal system alone (a fraction of the US prison population), there were over 90,000 prisoners locked up for drug offenses, compared with about 40,000 for violent crimes. A federal prisoner costs at least $30,000 a year to incarcerate, and females actually cost more.
-016- p142. I opened my mouth, mad enough to spit, and said loudly, ‘I  don’t eat iceberg lettuce!’
Really?  I asked myself.  That’s what you’re going to throw down with?
-017- p172. Two hundred women, no phones, no washing machines, no hair dryers–it was like  Lord of the Flies on estrogen.
-018- pp180-1. But our current criminal justice system has no provision for restorative justice, in which an offender confronts the damage they have done and tries to make it right to the people they have harmed. … Instead, our system of ‘corrections’ is about arm’s-length revenge and retribution, all day and all night. Then its overseers wonder why people leave prison more broken than when they went in.
-019- p181 This is no unassuming ‘shim’ unfortunately incarcerated and trying to get along; Vanessa was a full-blown diva. It was as if someone had shot Mariah Carey through a matter-disrupter and plunked her down in our midst.
-020- p183. Vanessa was deprived of her hormones in prison and thus retained several male characteristics that would have been less evident otherwise, most notably her voice. While she spoke in a high, little-girl voice most of the time, she could switch at will to a booming, masculine Richard-voice. She loved to sneak up behind people and scare the crap out of them this way, and she was very effective at quieting a noisy dining hall, roaring, ‘Y’all hush up!’ Best of all were her Richardian encouragements on the softball field, where she was a most sought-after teammate. That bitch could hit.
-021- p194. According to the CDC, cigarettes kill over 435,000 people a year in the United States. Most of us in Danbury were locked away for trading in illegal drugs. The annual death toll of illegal drug addicts, according to the same government study? Seventeen thousand. Heroin or coffin nails, you be the judge.
-022- pp200-1. I thought I knew why Levy had lied. She didn’t want to admit to herself, let alone to the outside world, that she had been placed in a ghetto, just as ghetto as they had once had in Poland. Prison is quite literally a ghetto in the most classic sense of the world, a place where the U.S. government now puts not only the dangerous but also the inconvevient–people who are mentally ill, people who are addicts, people who are poor and uneducated and unskilled. Meanwhile the ghetto in the outside world is a prison as well, and a much more difficult one to escape from than this cirrectional compound. In fact, there is basically a revolving door between our urban and rural ghettos and the formal ghetto of our prison system.
It was too painful, I thought, for Levy and others (especially the middle-class prisoners) to admit that they had been classed as undesirables, compelled against their will into containment, and forced into scarcity without even the dignity of chosen austerity. So instead she said it was Club Fed.
-023- p228. From a young age I had learned to get over–to cover my tracks emotionally, to hide or ignore my problems in the belief that they were mine alone to solve. So when exhilarating transgressions required getting over on authority figures, I knew how to do it. I was a great bluffer. And when common, everyday survival in prison required getting over, I could do that too. This is what was approvingly described by my fellow prisoners as ‘street-smarts,’ as in ‘You wouldn’t think it to look at her, but Piper’s got street-smarts.’
It wasn’t just my peers who applauded this trait; the prison system mandates stoicism and tries to crush any genuine emotion, but everyone, jailers and prisoners alike, is still crossing boundaries left and right. My deep contempt for Levy was not only because I didn’t like the way she put herself above others but also because she was the opposite of stoic. Nobody likes a crybaby.
-024- pp239-40 In the back of my mind I knew he wasn’t going to do shit t me. He wasn’t going to put me in the SHU, he wasn’t going to lay a hand on me, I wasn’t going to lose my good time. It wasn’t worth it to them to do the paperwork that that would require. And he knew that I knew. Which was why he was screaming at me, and scaring me, even though we both knew it was a totally pointless exercise. No, I didn’t think it was funny.
My out-of-bounds infraction was a minor one, a 300-series shot, along the same lines of: refusing to obey a direct order, participating in an unauthorized meeting or fathering, failing to stand for count, giving or accepting anything of value to or from another inmate, possession of nonhazardous contraband: and indecent exposure. Even lower on the list were the 400-series: faking sick, tattooing or self-mutilation, conducting a business, or unauthorized physical contact (like hugging someone who was crying).
More serious by far were the 200-series shots: fighting; extortion, blackmail, protection rackets; wearing a disguise; engaging in or encouraging a group demonstration; work stoppage; bribery; stealing; demonstrating, practicing, or using martial arts, boxing, wrestling, or other forms of physical encounters, military exercises or drills; and the best-knowns of all shots, the 205–engaging in sexual acts.
The 100-series were the worst of all; you could catch another charge for them. Murder, assault, escape, possession of a weapon, inciting a riot, drug possession, and one perfect catch-all: ‘conduct which disrupts or interferes with the orderly running of the institution or the BOP.’
-025- p242. Do you have to find the evil in yourself in order to truly recognize it in the world? The vilest thing I had located, within myself and within the system that held me prisoner, was an indifference to the suffering of others.
-026- p261. We finally arrived at what seemed like an abandoned industrial vacant lot. The bus stopped, and there we sat, for hours. If you think that is it impossible to sleep in shackles, I am here to prove you wrong. They gave us chicken sandwiches, and I had to help the Pennsylvania hick eat–the guard had not been as kind to her as to me and had chained her tightly and put her in an extra ‘black box’ restraint that immobilized her thumbs–this to protect her codefendent, a woman with whom she was now excitedly gossiping. Finally the bus rumbled to life and pulled onto a huge tarmac. We had company–there were at least a half-dozen other transport vehicles, another bus, unmarked vans and sedans, all idling in the cold winter dusk. And then quite suddenly an enormous 747 landed, taxied briefly, and pulled up among the vehicles. In a moment I recognized that I was in the midst of the most cliched action thriller, as jackbooted marshals with submachine guns and high-powered rifles swarmed the tarmac–and I was one of the villains.
-027- p263. Con Air does not fly direct. The jumbo airliners act more like puddle-jumpers, stopping hither and yon to pick up convicts being transported all over the country for all kinds of reasons–court appearances, facility transfers, postsentencing designation. Some prisoners appeared to be fresh off the street, still in civilian clothes.
-028- p263. At about eight p.m. we landed in Oklahoma City. I believe that the Federal Transfer Center sits at the edge of the airport there, but I can’t be completely sure, as I never saw the outside world–the planes taxi right up to the prison to unload their heavily tattooed cargo. By default and necessity, it is a maximum-security facility that houses many prisoners during the course of their airlift experiences. Until I reached Chicago, this would be my new quarters.
-029- p267. Jae and her cousin riffed back and forth as we played card. Slice was full of very funny accounts about the life of a bulldagger on the make in the FCI back in Danbury, including the story of being caught in the act in the middle of the night by a guard we all knew. ‘I froze, man, he’s got his flashlight on us, and it wasn’t the kinda situation where you can deny, know what I mean? And he just said, “Let me watch.” Sooooooo…’ and she indicated getting back to business. It was the same guy who had bird-dogged me for giving Pop in innocent foot massage. Filthy pig.
-030- p267. By the time the dinner cart showed up after the four o’clock count, we were laughing our asses off. When we took the lid off the plastic trays, the stench made us slam them back on immediately. Jae spoke up, after a beat. ‘We’re gonna have to kill one of these bitches and eat her, or starve.’
-031- p279. D.H. Lawrence used to observe on our national character: ‘The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.’
-032- p285. The MCC tested my endurance and tolerance. At least we had feminine hygience items, all emblazoned with Bob Barker’s name.
-033- p292. As a child, a teen, a young adult, I developed a firm belief in my solitude, the not-novel concept that we are each alone in the world. Some parts self-reliance, some parts self-protection, this belief offers a binary perspective–powerhouse or victim, complete responsibility or total divorcement, all in or out the door. Carried to its extreme, the idea gives license to the belief that one’s own actions do not matter much; we traverse the world in our own bubbles, occasionally breaking thought to one another but largely and ultimately alone.
I would seem to have been ready-made for prison time then, as a familiar jailhouse trope says ‘you come in alone and you walk out alone,’ and common counsel is to keep to oneself and mind your own business.
-034- p293. No one who worked in ‘corrections’ appeared to give any thought to the purpose of our being there, any more than a warehouse clerk would consider the meaning of a can of tomatoes, or try to help those tomatoes understand what the hell they were doing on the shelf.
Great institutions have leaders who are proud of what they do, and who engage with everyone who makes up those institutions, so each person understands their role. But our jailers are generally granted near-total anonymity, like the cartoon executioner who wears a hood to conceal his identity. What is the point, what is the reason, to lock people away for years, when it seems to mean so very little, even to the jailers who hold the key? How can a prisoner understand their punishment to have been worthwhile to anyone, when it’s dealt in a way so offhand and indifferent?
-035- p298. The lesson that our prison system teaches its residents is how to survive as a prisoner, not as a citizen…
-036- p299 The United States has the biggest prison population in the world–we incarcerate 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, though we are only 5 percent of the world’s population. This reliance on prisons is recent: in 1980 we had about 500,000 Americans in prison; now we have more than 2.3 million people locked up. A huge part of that growth is represented by people like the women I did time with–low-level offenders who have made serious mistakes but pose little threat of violence. Most of the women I know from prison have lived lives that were missing opportunities many of us take for granted. It sometimes seems that we have built revolving doors between our poorest communities and correctional facilities, and created perverse financial incentives to keep those prisons full, at taxpayers’ expense. America has invested heavily in prisons, while the public institutions that actually prevent crime and strengthen communities–schools, hospitals, libraries, museums, community centers–go without.

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