Sunday, May 23, 2010

Book Review: Orange is the New Black

Kerman, Piper. Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2010.

I found out about this book through a review on Slate. I read it because I have geographic and personal connections to it.

It was a quick read, more like a novel than anything else. It did explain a minor mystery in my life. If I get sick at work, and have to take the midday train, it's always filled with a random assortment of people. I had never stopped to think that they were heading up to the women's prison for visitation. One of my cop friends told me that I "don't observe what [I] notice". I had noticed it, but hadn't observed.

There are two paragraphs on page 293 that bear repeating, as they're the only unique non-fiction lesson in the book:

"Now here, in my third prison, I perceived an odd truth that held for each: no one ran them. Of course, somewhere in those buildings, some person with a nameplate on their desk or door nominally ran the place, and below them in the food chain there were captains and lieutenants. But for all practical purposes, for the prisoners, the people who lived in those prisons day in and day out, the captain's chair was vacant, and the wheel was spinning while the sails flapped. The institutions putzed along with the absolute minimum staff presence, and the staff that were there invariably seemed less than interested in their jobs. No one was present, interacting in any affirmative way with the people who filled those prisons. The leadership vacuum was total. 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?"

That's almost word-for-word the opinion of an ex-prison guard I know. He told me that on some nights, if a couple of people called in, he would be the only one on duty for a thousand minimum security inmates. At the point, he said, his job was reduced to "open the doors if there's a fire and hope only a few try to escape."



Blogger Noumenon said...

Like Scott Adams says, "Remember, the cable company is made up of people who couldn't get jobs at the phone company." There's a limited number of great institutional leaders in society and it works just fine if you put them in the institutions that need leadership, like biotech and counter-insurgency, and let the other ones, like railroads and prisons, coast along on the rails laid down by leaders from long ago.

If that quote about observing and noticing applies to you, then I guess I don't even notice, because I always respected your ability to not just see day-to-day interactions at work, but come up with stuff like "QA has an institutional second-guessing problem." (can't remember how you phrased that)

6:51 AM  
Blogger Octavo Dia said...

If that quote about observing and noticing applies to you, then I guess I don't even notice,

That was after I pointed to a rather run down strip mall and remarked that it attracted far more business than the shops available would seem to warrant.

Apparently it had more for sale than what meets the eye.

And that's where the quote comes in.

8:05 AM  

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