I’m usually a book-is-better kinda guy, but I found that reading the real Piper Kerman’s account of her incarceration while watching the fictional Piper Chapman’s experience in the Netflix show inspired by the book heightened my enjoyment of both. On the one hand, the book provides the “okay, how much of this really happened?” solidity that I wanted as a viewer. But the TV version not only features pitch-perfect casting, it practically serves as a workshop in how to develop plot from situations. It dives, Lost-like, into the back-stories of Chapman’s fellow prisoners, in a way Kerman very specifically eschews. It delves into the other prisoners’ motivations to establish conflict between them, and it ratchets up the drama and tension of every real-world incident that Kerman discusses.
Kerman’s memoir also has a more explicit political agenda than the drama. It makes the case that America’s penal system is failing its inmates (and, to a degree, the society that includes future, current, and former inmates) in an unusual, compelling, and somewhat ironic way. Kerman demonstrates, implicitly, that her prison sentence did exactly what it was supposed to do: it forced her to confront and acknowledge poor choices, instilled deep attitudinal and behavioral changes, and allowed her to return to the larger society in a productive role. But Kerman also makes it clear that the penal system only succeeded for her because she was a severely atypical constituent of it, effectively insulated from the consequences of her incarceration by privilege.