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My year in a women's prison
Author Piper Kerman learned to make friends fast when she was locked up on a decade-old drug offense.
 
Author Piper Kerman writes about life in a women's prison.
Author Piper Kerman writes about life in a women's prison.
Corbis

NEW ARRIVALS IN federal prison are stuck in a sort of purgatory for the first month or so. When you are on Admissions and Orientation status, you can’t do anything—can’t have a job, can’t go to GED classes, can’t say a word when ordered to shovel snow at odd hours of the night. The official line is that your medical tests and clearances must come back from whatever mysterious place they go before your prison life can really start. But almost nothing involving paperwork happens quickly in prison.

During my A&O period at the minimum-security prison in Danbury, Conn., I was often afraid—less of violence (I hadn’t seen any evidence of it) than of getting cursed out publicly for breaking a prison rule or a prisoner rule. There are a dizzying number of official and unofficial rules and rituals to learn. You learn them quickly or suffer the consequences, such as: being thought an idiot, being called an idiot, being forced to clean bathrooms, getting an incident report put on your record, or getting sent to solitary. Yet the most common response to a query about anything other than an official rule is, “Honey, don’t you know not to ask questions in prison?” Everything else—the unofficial rules—you learn by observation, inference, or very cautious questioning of people you hope you can trust.

Early on, I spent as many hours as I could standing out in the February cold, staring to the east over an enormous Connecticut valley. I wrote letters and read books. I braved the rickety icy stairs that led down to a field house gym and a frozen track. But except for pestering my temporary bunkmate with questions, I kept mostly to myself.

Finally, one evening, the PA system boomed my name, and I scurried down to the office of my counselor, Mr. Butorsky. I was off A&O. “You’re moving down into B Dorm,” Butorsky said. “Cube 18. Miss Malcolm will be your bunkie.”

I had no idea who Miss Malcolm was, but I had learned that in prison “Miss” was an honorific conferred only on the elderly or those who were highly respected. Though I didn’t yet know it, I had won the bunkie lottery.

B DORM WAS known as “the Ghetto.” Housing in the prison was assigned by the counselors, its three dorms organized along obvious racial lines. I might have blended more easily into A Dorm, or “the Suburbs,” but I was assured that my assignment meant that my counselor “liked me.” When I had imagined what the dorms looked like, I pictured murky caves. They turned out to be large, semi-subterranean rooms that were mazes of beige cubicles, each housing two prisoners, a bunk bed, two metal lockers, and a stepladder. Miss Malcolm, a petite, dark-skinned, middle-aged woman with a heavy Caribbean accent, was waiting for me when I arrived at Cube 18. She was all business.

“That’s your locker.” She indicated the empty one. “And these are your hooks. Those hooks are mine, and that’s just the way it’s gonna be.” Her clothes were neatly hung, including a pair of checkered cook’s pants. “I don’t care if you’re gay or what, but I don’t want no foolishness in the bunk. I clean on Sunday nights. You have to help clean.”

“Of course, Miss Malcolm,” I agreed.

“Call me Natalie,” she said.

Natalie, a woman near the end of an eight-year sentence, would prove to be a reserve of quiet dignity and good counsel. Because of her heavy accent, it took careful listening on my part to understand everything she said, but she never said anything unnecessary. She was the head baker in the kitchen. She rose at 4 a.m. to begin her shift and kept largely to herself with a few select friends from among the West Indian women and her kitchen co-workers. She spent quiet time reading, walking the track, and writing letters, and went to bed early, at 8 p.m. She could answer just about any question I had about life at Danbury, but we spoke very little about our lives outside of prison. She never said what had landed her there, and I never asked.

How Natalie got to sleep at 8 o’clock every night became a mystery to me immediately, because it was loud down in B Dorm. My first evening there I was quiet as a mouse in my top bunk, trying to follow the hooting and hollering that took place across the big room filled with four dozen women. I was worried that I would never get any sleep, and that I would lose my marbles in the cacophony. When the main lights were shut off, though, it quieted down pretty quickly.

But the next morning, something woke me before dawn. Groggy and confused, I sat up in bed in the dark. I could hear someone, not shouting exactly, but angry. I leaned forward cautiously, and peeped out of my cubicle.

Two cubes away I could see a Spanish woman who’d been particularly loud the night before. She was not happy. What was angering her, I could not figure out. Suddenly she squatted for a few moments, then stood up and stalked off, leaving behind a puddle in front of my neighbor’s cubicle.

I rubbed my eyes. Did I just see what I thought I saw? About a minute later a black woman emerged from the cubicle.

“Lili! Cabrales! Lili Cabrales! Get back here and clean this up! Lil-EEEEE!” People were not happy to be awakened this way, and a smattering of “Shut the f--- up!” broke out across the big room. I ducked my head back out of sight and flopped back down on my bunk. I had fallen down the rabbit hole.

MR. BUTORSKY HAD warned me about my fellow prisoners on my first day. “We’ve got all types up there. Some of them are all right,” he said. “No one’s going to mess with you unless you let them. Now, women don’t fight much. They talk, they gossip, they spread rumors. So they may talk about you. Some of the girls are going to think you think you’re better than them. They’re going to say, ‘Oh, she’s got money.’”

I felt uncomfortable. Was that how I came across?

“And there’s lesbians up there. They’re here, but they’re not gonna bother you. Some are gonna try and be your best friend, whatever—just stay away from them! I want you to understand, you do not have to have lesbian sex. I’m old-fashioned. I don’t approve of any of that mess.”

I tried very hard not to smirk. In truth, I would soon be struck by the fact that there did not seem to be any lesbian activity at Danbury. It was hard to see, within a few days, how a person could conduct an intimate relationship, let alone an illicit relationship, in such an overcrowded environment. A lot of the romantic relationships I eventually observed were more like schoolgirl crushes, and it was rare for a couple to last more than a month or two. My strategy for avoiding complications was to talk a lot about my fiancé, Larry, which made it known that I was not “that way.”

NATALIE HAD THE respect of everyone in B Dorm, and I soon could tell that being Natalie’s bunkie conferred on me an odd credibility among other prisoners. Despite her reserve and discretion, she also had a dry but lively sense of humor and treated me to sharp, sidelong observations on our daily life in B Dorm. “You in the Ghetto now, bunkie!” Her best friend, Ginger Solomon, who was also Jamaican, was like the yang to Natalie’s yin: antic, combustible, and loud. Miss Solomon was also a fantastic cook, and once she and Natalie had decided that I was all right, she would make me a plate of her special Saturday night dinner, usually a knockout curry prepared with kitchen contraband. On special occasions, Natalie would magically make roti appear.

I grew powerfully attached to Natalie in just a short time. But despite, or because of, the fact that Natalie and I lived in the closest of quarters, I knew virtually nothing about her—just that she was from Jamaica and that she had two children, a daughter and a young son. It was clear that where Natalie was concerned, personal subjects were off-limits.

In a world of women confined to such close quarters, juicy secrets had a way of leaking out anyway. Any story you heard in prison had to be taken with about a pound of salt, but some stories had real currency. Pop, the intimidating middle-aged wife of a Russian gangster, had the best gossip, the most historical and revealing. Pop ran the kitchen with an iron fist, and it was from her that I eventually found out why years earlier Natalie had once been sent down to FCI, the higher-security facility in our compound: My quiet, dignified bunkmate had thrown scalding water on another prisoner in the kitchen. I was incredulous when I heard this, but Pop said the victim had it coming. “And what you don’t know, Piper, is your bunkie got a temper! Natalie’s no joke.”

Seeing that I was still puzzled, she tried to illuminate some prison realities for me. “Look, Piper, things are pretty calm around here now, but that’s not always the way. And down the hill—forget about it! You’ve got lifers down there. When you’re doing serious time, or life, things look different. You can’t put up with sh-- from anyone, because this is your life, and if you ever take it from anyone, then you’re always going to have problems.”

When Pop told me her stories, I would hang on every word. I had no way of verifying whether they were the gospel truth, but I understood that these stories held their own accuracy. They described our world as we experienced it.

MERCIFULLY, THE CLOSEST I got to fighting during my brief stay did not involve scalding water or a “slock” (the name for a popular weapon made by slipping a combination lock inside a tube sock), but rather, roughage. Whenever anything other than cauliflower and iceberg lettuce appeared in the salad bar at the mess hall, I went to town. One day there was a bunch of spinach mixed in with the iceberg, and I happily began to select dark green leaves for my dinner, humming as I did so.

“Hey! Hey! Hey you! Stop picking! Stop picking like that!”

To my surprise, the shouting came from a beefy young girl in a hairnet who was glaring at me. I gestured with the salad tongs. “Are you talking to me?”

“Hell, yeah. You can’t be picking out the greens like that. Just fill up your plate and keep moving!”

I vaguely recognized my salad bar adversary as new—a reputed troublemaker who had yet to be assigned to a dorm. There was even a chance that, as a newbie, she had prepped the salad herself. Still, I was furious that she had had the nerve to step up to me. By then, I felt like I was pretty firmly established in the prison’s social ecology. Besides, she was breaking a cardinal rule among prisoners: Don’t tell me what to do—you have eight numbers after your name just like mine. So to have some 18-year-old messing with me in the dining room was enraging. To get into a public battle with a black woman was a profoundly loaded situation, but it didn’t even occur to me to back down from this punk kid.

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?

Fortunately, before I could raise the stakes higher, Jae, a tall, solidly built friend from B Dorm, materialized at my side. Her normally smiling face was stern. She looked at Big Mouth, not saying a word. And just like that, Big Mouth turned and slunk away.

“You okay, Piper?” said Jae.

“I am totally okay, Jae!” I replied hotly, glaring after Big Mouth. But I knew that Jae had just saved me many months of trouble.

Adapted from the book Orange Is the New Black by Piper Kerman. ©2010 by Piper Kerman. Used with permission of Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of the Random House Publishing Group.

 

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