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Book cover of "Orange is the New Black" by Piper Kerman

I recently read “Orange is the New Black,” by Piper Kerman. I didn’t get why it was a No. 1 New York Times best seller. Maybe it was Piper’s honesty that moved people on the outside who have never experienced the hell of being trapped in a situation with no power or control over what happens to them from day to day.

I did find Piper’s author photo intriguing in a similar way as the Mona Lisa. I can’t read her expression, but it’s familiar to me, an expression I’ve seen on the face of someone who has gone through something that was mentally and emotionally challenging. If I could ask her one question, it would be about her expression in the photo. Perhaps it is a reflection of what D.H. Lawrence said: “The essential American soul is hard, isolated, stoic and a killer. It has never yet melted.” 

Of course, her expression could mean something else entirely. We often tell ourselves that if we could just have what we had before we’d be so happy, yet, when we get it, we realize it’s not enough to make us happy. It leaves us with a knowing expression that we’ve duped ourselves into believing a lie.

We suffer from the curse of unrealistic expectations, expectations that never come to fruition. In my experience, there has always been a downside to everything, and the upside is never as satisfying as I expected in the beginning. Perhaps that is the prisoner’s experience, too: When a prisoner is released, they have to worry about providing for themselves, which requires effort — something prisoners don’t have to exert in prison. 

I remember being elated when I published my first book. It was selling well and was ranked No. 1 of all the habeas corpus books being marketed to prisoners. But it was not a bestseller as in a New York Times No. 1 best seller. It didn’t change my life financially. And four books later, I’m still no better off than I was after the publication of my first book. There is only so much I can do to promote my work from the confines of a prison cell. But it was an awesome experience, one I’ve enjoyed repeating. My books are like my children; I’ve felt awe every time I’ve held one in my hands for the first time. 

It’s hard not to compare myself against the success of others, especially in the world of writers. We can do what others cannot, but they still seem to succeed on a higher level as if it were their birthright. And this applies equally to those who could afford competent legal representation. 

All of that aside, I must continue to press forward and only look backward to educate myself on the past so I won’t make a costly life choice in the present that will affect my future. 

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Zachary A. Smith

Zachary A. Smith is a writer and artist incarcerated in Missouri. He has studied law for over 20 years and has earned a paralegal degree with distinction from Blackstone Career Institute. He is the author of the “Smith’s Guide” series. His latest additions to the series are “Smith’s Guide to State Habeas Corpus Relief for State Prisoners” and “Smith’s Guide to Second or Successive Habeas Corpus Relief for State and Federal Prisoners.”