Following a plea deal for her 10-year-old drug-related crime, Piper Kerman spent a year in the women’s correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut. Now, five years after being released, she’s written Orange is the New Black (Spiegel & Grau), a memoir about her experiences serving a 13-month sentence. Counseled "not to make any friends" before beginning her time in Danbury, Kerman found precisely the opposite to be true, and met an incredible community of women in prison. Among the many surprises Kerman found, was the intensity with which so many of the woman approached holidays. In this brief excerpt below, the author recounts the time around Passover and Easter.
There were no new spring hats or dresses in prison, but the week before Easter someone erected a creepy giant wooden cross behind the Camp, right outside of the dining hall. I was confronted with it at breakfast, and could only ask "What the fuck?" of Mrs. Jones, the gruff old queen of the puppy program who was among the old ladies who always came to breakfast. I was surprised to learn that she was only 55, but prison will age a gal prematurely. "They always put it up," she reported. "Some clown from Construction & Maintenance came up and did it." A few days later my friend Nina, a tough Brooklyn Italian, and I were discussing the impending holidays over a cup of instant coffee. Levy and the one other Jew in residence, the decidedly more likable Gayle Greenman, had been given boxes of matzoh by the German nun for Passover. This excited the interest of the other prisoners. "How come they get them big crackers?" a neighbor from B Dorm asked me, probing the mysteries of faith. "Them crackers would be good with jelly." Nina, with her bangs in rollers, tilted her head as she reminisced about Passovers past. "One year I was in Rikers. Matzoh was the only edible thing they gave us," she mused, rolling her cigarette thoughtfully between her fingers. "It was delicious with buttah." This year I would not be ferrying back and forth between Larry’s family’s Seder and my own Easter traditions. Too bad, I love the ten plagues. The kitchen crew pulled out all the stops for Easter dinner. It was positively lavish, a spring miracle. The menu: baked chicken and cabbage with astonishing dumplings, so dense you could have used them as weapons; fabulous mustardy devilled eggs; real vegetables on the salad bar; and for dessert, Natalie’s very special bird’s nest confection – a deep-fried tortilla cupping a mound of pudding, covered with lush green-dyed coconut "grass" strewn with jelly bean "eggs," and a gaily colored marshmallow Peep perched on top. I just stared at it, unable to believe my eyes, while everyone around me ate enthusiastically. I didn’t want to eat this incredible diorama. I wanted to shellac it and save it forever.
Excerpted from Orange is the New Black: My Year Inside a Women’s Prison, by Piper Kerman, published by Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House. Copyright © 2010 by Piper Kerman. All rights reserved. For more on Piper Kerman, visit PiperKerman.com.