Zen and the Art of Prison

It was great curiosity and fear that I read Piper Kerman’s Orange is The New Black. We both came from nice New England families, graduated from the same college and made foolish mistakes after college. Piper’s mistake was transporting a suitcase full of cash to Europe for a drug dealer. Ten years after the ordeal she finds herself in a minimum security federal prison for a year.

Like the author, post college I was looking for an adventure and would have contemplated something as idiotic as participating in a drug cartel. I do not know if I would have done anything per se, but I certainly would have considered it.

In college I had read an article in the Village Voice about young people given an all expense paid vacation to Jamaica, returning via Ohio because of the ease of passing through customs. Participants would have their bag “packed” while they sat at the beach for the weekend. Reading the article, the idea of a free trip to the Caribbean even if it entailed bringing back a suitcase full of marijuana danced in my mind. Fortunately I was given no such opportunity.

Reading the memoir, I do think I could have survived one year in Danbury. Obviously not my first choice for R & R, it did sound tolerable. I think I had to prove to myself that I too would have emerged okay if I had been equally tempted and enveloped in an international drug trafficking circle. I’m embarrassed to admit now that ten years ago my standards were so malleable.

Kerman echoed something I’ve heard before, so much of prison is boredom and waiting. Towards the end of her sentence, she sits in a room with a prosecutor waiting for her to speak first. Kerman draws upon her months of patience and waits for him to break his silence. She has passed much of her prison days running on a track, working in an electric and construction shop, reading and practicing yoga.

When I found myself sitting in the car annoyed at the traffic, I tried thought of Piper Kerman and her prison zen. I could still relax and breathe deeply without serving any time.

Kerman left prison satisfied with her well toned body. All of her exercise and heavy lifting coupled with the poor food and lack of any substance including birth control pills left muscles defined. It was only towards the end of her sentence that she was able to use a private bathroom with a door that locked. Insides she stripped her clothes and admired her body for the first time.

While prison strips away so many dignities of the prisoners, Piper discovered her inner and outer strengths and even reconnected with that former foolish self of hers.


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