Orange is The New Black is a Netflix TV show that has won over the hearts of many. It’s focused on the life of a woman named Piper, and how she ends up in prison. In her twenties, Piper fell in love with a woman she calls and subsequently fell into a life of trafficking heroin. Later in life, after leaving that “business” and marrying a man, her crimes catch up with, and she is sentenced to prison time for money laundering and drug trafficking. If you’re one of the many who has binge-watched this show on more than one occasion and is patiently waiting for new episodes to arrive, try reading some of these books to fill your time.
A World Apart: Women, Prison and Life Behind Bars by Christina Rathbone
A World Apart was written by Christina Rathbone. And she had to fight for it; after two court cases between Rathbone and two prison officials, she was finally allowed access to the women’s prison, MCI-Framingham. Christina Rathbone spent in-depth, intimate time with the women in this relic of a prison, and then brought them to life in the pages of A World Apart. The book is centered around a woman named Denise who was serving five years for a non-violent drug offense. Denise was the mother of a little boy who was fourteen and in prison himself at the time of her release from MCI-Framingham. This investigative journalism takes a close, compassionate look at the lives of many women in this prison, bring their day to day reality to light, as well as the injustices in our prison system.
Whip Smart: by Melissa Febos
As a young college student at “The New School” Melissa Febos took on the shocking job of a dominatrix in a downtown dungeon. In this memoir, she tells all her secrets from that time.
As Melissa Febos found herself entrenched in the world of money making through scandalous behaviors and hidden desires in secret places in her city, she became more and more self-destructive and miserable. She developed a drug habit and a sense of futility about herself that belied her smarts and hard work at her college. Eventually, Melissa Febos finds her way back to her true self, but not before she’s taken the reader on an unforgettable trip through a secret world.
White Oleander by Janet Fitch
White Oleander is a novel by Janet Fitch that centers around a teenage girl’s life in foster care after her mother goes to prison. Written in first-person, this gorgeous novel is heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time.
Astrid, the young girl, is precocious, deeply sensitive, and misses her confusing mother an enormous amount. As Astrid moves from foster home to foster home, the reader goes through the various challenges, heartbreaks, and disappointments that Astrid encounters as she not only moves forward but grows up. This novel was made into an acclaimed movie, with Michelle Pfeiffer and Allison Lohman as the lead actresses.
Out of the Orange by Cleary Wolters
Cleary Wolters was the real-life girlfriend of Piper Kerman who was called Nora in the bookOrange is the New Black and Alex in the Netflix Series. After reading her story in Kerman’s memoir, and then watching it fictionalized in the show, Wolters wrote her own memoir of the drug smuggling and her relationship with Piper that ended up becoming a national obsession.
Wolters book is called Out of The Orange, and while it includes the time in prison with Piper Kerman, it also focuses on the years of Wolter’s life before her arrest and imprisonment for five years. (She has also served many years of probation.) Wolter admires the courage that it took Kerman to publish her story and says that she inspired her to do the same.
Something Like Hope: by Shawn Goodman
Shawn Goodman wrote this moving novel after years of working in juvenile detention centers, to give life to the many untold, heartbreaking stories he saw unfolding around him in the lives of young people.
Shavonne is seventeen years old and has been in juvenile detention since the seventh grade. Mr. Delpopolo a counselor who treats Shavonne with respect and dignity. With his help, Shavonne begins to tell the true story of her past: her drug-addicted mother, the baby she gave up, and a horrible secret she carries with her. Along with other young people in the center, Shavonne begins to see herself and her future with broader possibilities.
The Liar’s Club: by Mary Karr
Mary Karr is an incredible writer who produced one of the most important memoirs of the last decade: The Liar’s Club. This is not a book you will ever forget. Karr tells the story of her childhood in East Texas in the 1960s, and her deeply wounded and dysfunctional family, including her sister.
Mary Karr’s voice in this memoir is unforgettable. In powerful, painfully raw language, she recounts in vivid details the stories and impressions of her youth that formed her, some of which she can only recall, and never truly understand. This is memoir about family, how suffering is passed on to children, survival, grit, and love.
Fish: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man’s Prison by T.J. Parsell
Reading this incredibly harrowing account of T.J. Parsell’s time in prison, you can easily understand how and why he is now a human right’s activist in addition to being a powerful writer, committed to telling his story to help others.
At seventeen, T.J. Parsell was arrested for breaking probation by robbing a liquor store with a toy gun (after first entering an empty hotel room). Sentenced to possibly fifteen years in a Michigan prison, T.J. undergoes assaults and abuse that is difficult to even read about. Parcell survived and now advocates for protection against assault for inmates. A movie is being made based off of this amazingly open memoir, starring actor Bryan Dechart.
Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen
This well-known memoir holds a special place in many women’s hearts. The memoir is a break-though book that tells the story of Susanna Kaysen’s brutal two years, at the end of her teenage years in a psychiatric ward.
This book is known not only for Kaysen’s intelligent, insightful, at times beautiful writing about horrible things but also for the movie made about it. Actress Winona Ryder played Susanna Kaysen and did a wonderful job bringing to life this sensitive, haunted young girl locked up in a terrifying place without knowing when she could get out, or what would even happen to her when she did.
Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia: by Marya Hornbacher
Wasted is the gritty, wrenching story of one young woman’s struggle through and out from the clutches of anorexia and bulimia, the eating disorders. These disorders are notoriously difficult to treat and can take years to get under control.
Hornbacher was praised for her emotional intelligence and insight into her own behaviors as she looked backward in writing this story. For fourteen years, Hornbacher struggled to understand and overcome the grips that eating disorders had on her fragile life. It was not until she almost lost her life that her romanticized idea of what she was doing to herself left, and she was left with the reality that she was slowly dying unless she chose to truly get better.
The Lost Children of Wilder, The Epic Struggle to Change Foster Care: by Nina Bernstein
A class-action lawsuit in 1973 would forever alter the American perception of foster care. A young ACLU attorney filed the lawsuit on behalf of Shirley Wilder, challenging New York City’s operation of its foster-care system. Shirley Wilder was abused and a runaway and had suffered in foster care.
Nina Bernstein writes us into the heart of this court case, tracing the life of Shirley Wilder and her son, Lamont, born when Shirley was only fourteen and given to the foster care system. Bernstein’s account of Shirley and Lamont’s lives captures the sad reality of foster care.
Life on the Outside, The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett by Jennifer Gonnerman
Elaine Bartlett spent sixteen years in Bedford Hills prison for her first offense ever: selling cocaine. Under New York’s Rockefeller new drug laws, this incredibly unjust sentence is inflicted. The book opens on the morning of Bartlett’s last day in prison when she returns home to New York City. She is 42 at the time, with children at home.
Bartlett’s story is a mind-blowing account of how arbitrary and cruel the justice system can be, as well as illuminating the struggles that ex-convicted felons have while they are trying to reintegrate honorably back into society. Reporter Jennifer Gonnerman detailed Bartlett’s life and does an amazing job.
8 Ball Chicks: by Gini Sikes
Gini Sikes is a long-time journalist who spent a year in the ghettos with key girl gang members in South Central Los Angeles, San Antonio, and Milwaukee. 8 Ball Chicks is Sikes’ reported discoveries on the violent and engrossing lives of these young women, trapped in gang life and looking for status.
This acclaimed book also left reviewers and readers with one particularly big take-away: girl gang members are just as violent if not more violent than their male counterparts. The girls regularly do criminal acts that could end with their injury, death or prison time, and Sikes watches and reports it all back to the reader.
Juvie :by Steve Wakins
A novel about sisterhood, the foster care system, and juvenile detention, Steve Wakins created the story of Sadie and Carla Windas.
Sadie Windas feels and acts like the more responsible sister of the two, getting good grades, dating the “right” guy, and pitching in at home. Carla is Sadie’s older sister who leaves her three-year-old daughter, Lulu, with Aunt Sadie while she lets loose. Soon, both sisters are caught up in a drug deal and Sadie falsely confesses to the crime to protect her sister and her niece. Sadie ends up with three to six months in juvie, and her life is forever altered.
Inside This Place, Not Of It Compiled and Edited Robin Levi and Ayelet Waldman
The stories in Inside This Place, Not of It may be edited by writers Robin Levi and Ayelet Waldman, but they are purely created by the women highlighted here within the prison system. Some are still incarcerated and others are on the other side of that fence.
The women in our prisons, like the men, endure physical, sexual, and mental abuse. While this has been fairly well-documented in male prisons, women in prison have not been able to tell their stories. These stories change this, by telling the sometimes heartbreaking, enraging stories of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women.
Running the Books: Memoir of an Accidental Prison Librarian: by Avi Steinberg
Avi Steinberg left yeshiva to attend Harvard but found himself stuck in the world, not moving forward. His Orthodox Jewish upbringing comes with expectations he doesn’t meet, and he’s tired of his job as a freelance obituary writer. (Who wouldn’t be!?)
So he takes a seemingly random path: Steinberg gets a job as a librarian in a tough Boston prison. In this new setting, Steinberg encounters all kinds of people who shake up his worldview as well as his views on himself and his family. Over time, Steinberg is drawn into the community of people he meets, until there comes a crossroads where he is forced to take sides. A close look at the culture of prison and one man’s attempt to understand the world and himself.
Kissing the Sword, A Prison Memoir by Shahrnush Parsipur
Born in Iran in 1946, Shahrnush Parsipur was a fiction writer and producer at Iranian National Television and Radio. She was imprisoned for nearly five years by the religious government without any real charges levied against her. After her release, she published the book Women Without Men and was arrested and jailed again.
Banned in Iran, the novel became an underground bestseller and has been translated into many languages around the world. Kissing the Sword is Parsnipur’s fear-soaked, feverish memoir of her time in prison. Parsnipur is now in exile in California.
Shaking It Rough, A Prison Memoir: by Andreas Schroeder
Andreas Schroeder went to prison for a drug offense and felt that he deserved to do so. Open-eyed and open-minded, he went into his sentence with the intention to survive and get whatever he could out of the experience.
This memoir was shortlisted for a Governor-General’s Award for Andreas Schroeder’s clear documentation of the prison culture he found himself thrust into, and his reactions to it, as well as the many prison guards and inmates that he met during his stay. Now married with two daughters, Schroeder has spent his life writing as well as promoting the stories of others that help us understand the prison system we have created.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X :by Malcolm X told to Alex Haley
This 1964 classic tale of the life of Malcolm X was named one of Time’s most important books of the twentieth century. Malcolm X, the Muslim leader, and powerful civil rights activist, tells the truly extraordinary story of his life and the growth of the Black Muslim movement to writer and journalist Alex Haley.
“Malcolm founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity to reach African Americans across the country with an inspiring message of pride, power, and self-determination,” wrote Penguin Random House of this great man and his life story. This is a book you don’t want to pass up, a story that is truly American in all its shame and glory.
Prison Baby: by Deborah Jiang Stein
Prison Baby is an expanded version of Deborah Jiang Stein’s self-published memoir, Even Tough Girls Wear Tutus. Deborah was the adopted daughter of a progressive Jewish couple in Seattle and as a little girl, she never felt she fit in. Her mixed Asian features set her apart from her white parents, who wouldn’t answer her origin questions.
Stein found out that she was actually born to a heroin-addicted mother in a prison, and was not able to process the information or emotions that came along with it. She spiraled into addiction herself, and spent years in pain, searching for peace. This memoir details her journey of self-discovery and the path that led to her to peace.
Colors of the Cage, A Prison Memoir: by Arun
Arun Ferreira was acting as a human right’s activist when he was picked up from the railway station and arrested by the Nagpur police on charges of being a Naxalite, which is a member of a communist guerrilla group in South Asia.
He was then seemingly randomly charged with more crimes: of criminal conspiracy, murder, possession of arms and rioting, among others, and incarcerated in a notorious prison. He was held there for nearly five years. In 2011 he was acquitted of all charges. This account tells the horrible abuse, torture, deprivation and conditions that Ferreira lived through as well as the other prisoners inside with him, and makes a call for proper representation for every person accused of a crime.
Orange is The New Black
If you liked the show, why not try the book! Orange is The New Black: My Time In Women’s Prison is a memoir written by the real-life Piper Kerman. It follows the same storyline as parts of the show, and, even more interestingly, is all true. You know what they say about the truth being stranger than fiction…
The memoir was published in 2010 and gained popularity fairly quickly. A review in Slate, by writer Jessica Grose, read, “…if you pick up Kerman’s book looking for a realistic peek inside an American prison, you will be disappointed. Orange Is the New Black belongs in a different category, the middle-class-transgression genre. This genre also includes books from “good girls” who become strippers, alcoholics, and dominatrixes. The tales of these well-educated women follow essentially the same narrative arc: Girl is bored, girl seeks titillating transgression, girl regrets, girl renounces prior misdeeds, girl lives happily ever after. The girl never serves out a life sentence carving deadly points on toothbrushes or ends up a strung-out old lady on a street corner.” Intrigued?