So you binge-watched Orange is the New Black when the first season was released, and maybe you even read Piper Kerman's memoir that inspired the series. Season two’s June 6 launch date gives you plenty of time to read more about women's prison experiences, but where to begin? Here are five books that offer good starting points:
1. Upper Bunkies Unite and Other Thoughts on the Politics of Mass Incarceration by Andrea C. James
James wrote Upper Bunkies Unite while incarcerated in Danbury, Connecticut, where Kerman also served her sentence. James's title refers to prison bed assignments:
At Danbury, if you're fifty or older, you get an automatic pass to sleep in the lower bunk and you are known as a lower bunkie. I always wanted to know how did they pick that number. Let me tell you, when it comes to climbing in and out of an upper bunk, there's no difference between 45 and 60. But, unless you can get a pass for health reasons, you become an upper bunkie.
James offers an insider's view of daily life in prison, showcasing the ingenuity and creativity of the women around her. Sometimes her tone is humorous. For instance, she pokes fun at herself for being unable to master the art of microwave cooking. But the book is more than a collection of entertaining anecdotes; as the title's second half indicates, James also weaves in observations about race and racism, as well as the effects of legislation and behind-the-scenes machinations on prison life.
2. Inside This Place, Not of It Edited by Ayelet Waldman and Robin Levi
Inside This Place is a collection of first-person narratives from inside women's prisons. Many are painful, recounting instances of violence and abuse, but the stories also include how people find the strength to endure, form communities and support one another. "Irma," for example, recalls arriving in prison at age 18:
I was taken under the wing of some lifers who knew I was a baby and couldn't take care of myself. A lot of them played mom and a lot of them played sister, and they taught me the morals and principles of how to carry yourself, and the dos and don'ts of surviving in prison.
Some of these bonds described in the book also last beyond the prison gates. "Sherri" recounts of the women who became sisters to her:
Nowadays, when I see some of my girls on the street, I get so excited. I don't even get that excited when I see family members that I haven't seen in years. But when we see each other, it's like, “What do you need?” … You say, “Come on girl, I got five dollars, let's go to McDonald's! At least we can get two hamburgers, two fries, and share some cookies.”
3. Interrupted Life Edited by Rickie Solinger, Paula C. Johnson, Martha L. Raimon, Tina Reynolds and Ruby C. Tapia
This collection combines personal essays and poems written by incarcerated women with articles and reports by advocates and academics. Together, they provide a detailed look at women's imprisonment nationwide. Women write about topics ranging from pregnancy and parenting to finding love and being creative. In journal form, Lorrie Sue McClary brings readers into her agonizing last day in prison as parole paperwork is misplaced. She spends hours not knowing if she will be able to walk out the door. "Lord Jesus, I am on my knees in this dirty nasty cell asking you to please intercede. I can't call home and tell my parents that I can't come home again," she writes hours after her scheduled release time has passed. "After the last call it will kill them. Mom has the house full of friends, family …. I ask for my family as well as for myself, please Lord, help us."
4. Captive Genders Edited by Eric A. Stanley and Nat Smith
Orange is the New Black actress Laverne Cox has catapulted imprisoned trans women into our cultural and media consciousness. Captive Genders provides the opportunity to learn more through a mix of articles, interviews and personal essays.
Like an uncle telling stories at a family gathering, Tommi Avocolli Mecca recalls being a young street queen in 1970s Philadelphia. "I looked like a cross between Bette Midler and the New York Dolls," he recounts, admitting, "I didn't quite fit into the scene along the drag strip. … I regularly lectured [the other queens] about redistributing the wealth and other Marxist and anarchist ideas. They nodded politely, sometimes even offered comments, but generally stared at me blankly."
Kris Shelley, who came of age more recently, shares her experiences in a women's prison as a black lesbian whose appearance defies typical standards of femininity: "I've heard all kinds of comments, like: 'Man, you grow a better goatee than me,' 'Man, I can't get any facial hair—can you hook me up?' 'You look like a man, but can you fight like one?' and 'Are you transgender or do you have both parts?'"
5. The Real Cost of Prisons Comix by Lois Ahrens
Prison facts, figures, and stories can be overwhelming. If you’re feeling exhausted at the prospect of trying to wade through the complexities of mass incarceration, this easy-to-understand introduction in comic form is for you.
Ahrens breaks down the overwhelming and often depressing nature of prison-related figures by creating comics that tell the story behind a person’s arrest and incarceration. Each personal story is followed by a comic explaining the policies behind arrest and prison policies. Unlike the other four books, The Real Cost of Prisons Comix does not solely focus on women.
In one comic, readers follow “Yvonne,” a 22-year-old mother-to-be arrested after she agrees to buy crack for a police informant. “Yvonne got a 2 year sentence and gave birth in shackles,” noted Ahrens. The illustration accompanying this statement shows a hugely pregnant Yvonne giving birth with her feet chained together and her hands cuffed to a bed. The following two panels illustrate her baby entering the foster care system — a woman walks away cradling a swaddled infant while Yvonne, still handcuffed, cries in the foreground. Following Yvonne’s story are several facts and figures about women in prison, each in its own comic panel.
In another, Ahrens illustrates the disparities in the legal system by comparing the cases of 19-year-olds Sam and Alec. Sam, caught up in a drug raid, is sentenced to six months in jail and a permanent felony conviction for his friend’s possession of crack. Alec, pulled over in car, is sent to drug treatment and, after six months, has his charges dropped. It’s worth noting that Sam is black and Alec is white. Having demonstrated the disparity through story, the next comic, entitled “What’s Race Got to Do With It?,” constructs a timeline in comics that explains the racial history behind these two sentences.
This list is but a starting point to understanding the plight of women in prison. What are you reading while waiting for the next season of Orange is the New Black? Which books about women’s incarceration would you recommend to fellow viewers? Share your suggestions in the comments below.
Victoria Law is a writer, photographer and mother. She co-edits the zine Tenacious: Art and Writings from Women in Prison and is the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women (PM Press 2009). She frequently writes about conditions and organizing within the U.S. prison system. To escape these realities, she enjoys reading dystopic fiction and printing black-and-white photos of streetscapes.
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