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What “Orange Is the New Black” Gets Right about the Prison System – and What It Leaves Out

“Orange is the New Black” is the latest in a long line of criminal justice-themed TV shows. But its penitentiary setting allows it to broach issues about the criminal justice system that many shows never dare to touch.

Shows revolving around prisons and law enforcement have traditionally sensationalized crime and dehumanized criminals. Think Lockup, CSI, Oz, Cops, the Law & Order franchise – there are good guys and bad guys, and the bad guys are really bad. But TV is changing. Pockets of programming are becoming sophisticated and analytical when it comes to crime, The Wire being perhaps the foremost example of a show that indicts our country’s dysfunctional criminal justice system more than the individuals ensnared in it. Netflix’s new series Orange Is the New Black is a welcome addition to this trend. It isn’t as gritty or nakedly political as The Wire, but it has no fear about revealing that the good guys aren’t always good, the bad guys aren’t always bad, and the system is setting all of them up to fail.

Created by Jenji Kohan (Weeds), Orange Is the New Black centers on an educated, cosmopolitan woman from New York City with the über-white name of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling). Piper finds herself in prison for a crime she’d committed a decade earlier when she carried money for a drug trafficking ring at the behest of her lesbian lover. She later went straight (in both senses of the word) and got engaged to Larry Bloom (Jason Biggs), a struggling writer who’s a bit of a nebbish. Piper’s one-year sentence is a test that the couple resolves to pass. Orange’s storyline comes from a memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman.

Yuppies like this aren’t representative of the general prison population. But then, that’s precisely the point in this fish-out-of-water narrative. When Piper Chapman arrives at Litchfield Penitentiary in upstate New York, she meets a cast of characters that reflects some key realities of women’s prisons: the racial diversity (plurality white, but with large black and Latino populations), the socioeconomic disadvantage of most inmates (Piper is nicknamed “College” and often held in suspicion due to her privilege), and the indifference, cruelty and sexual abuse frequently dished out by prison staff.

Power-Hungry Prison Staff

Although virtually everyone on the show has sympathetic moments, the most unlikeable characters are usually prison employees instead of inmates. A male guard fittingly nicknamed “Pornstache” (Pablo Schreiber) is a particularly loathsome character. He gropes women whenever he can get away with it and brags that prisoners are willing to give him a blow job for half a cigarette. And he’s not the only employee who abuses power. When several women are frisked in search of contraband, one inmate insists that a female guard be called to do her pat-down. The manager overseeing the search takes umbrage with this show of autonomy and sends the prisoner to solitary confinement (the Special Housing Unit, or SHU) as punishment, promising that once a female guard is found, she’ll give the inmate a “thorough, thorough search.”

Orange portrays solitary confinement as a cruel and arbitrarily-deployed weapon. And that is precisely what inmates in actual American prisons frequently allege, as anyone familiar with the current hunger strike in California facilities can attest. Orange’s portrayal of the experience is appropriately unnerving. A minute-long montage of one prisoner’s crushing terror, boredom and detachment from reality while in SHU may have done more to illustrate the horror of solitary confinement for Americans than all of this past month’s news articles about the hunger strike.

Litchfield Penitentiary’s employees aren’t trained to be sensitive to the emotional needs of inmates. They are trained to be precisely the opposite: harsh and dehumanizing. Never mind the research suggesting that treating prisoners well is associated with fewer crimes committed upon release. That is not what Litchfield’s employees know. One newly hired female guard – doe-eyed and kind – gets brought into the office of her supervisor, Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow), to receive a talking-to about how she’s going too easy on the inmates:

These women are criminals…You need to get on your game. You maintain your authority. You remind them who’s in charge…It helps if you don’t use their names. Just say “inmate,” like they’re all the same to you. It reminds them they’re not really people…They are sheep. We feed them. We herd them from one room to the next. They’re not like you.

We may be tempted to blame the supervisor as an individual for harboring this destructive attitude. But surely he was taught the same thing. Real-life American prisons aren’t run according to psychiatric best practices – not even close – and that’s a systemic problem Orange reveals.

The inmates, for their part, are portrayed as utterly human. The show uses flashbacks to illuminate how several of them got where they are. They generally don’t look like angels, but they aren’t devils, either. There’s the girl who received no love from her mother and got caught up in drugs; the one who shoplifted, but kept meticulous notes on how much she owed everyone so she could repay her debts someday; the one who committed an atrocious crime to protect someone from another atrocious crime. These characters controvert the perception that criminals are somehow less human, less worthy of basic care, than the rest of us, even if the system in which they are trapped sees them as animals.

The Stacked Deck

Of course, systemic problems are not limited to what goes on between the prison walls. Once people leave incarceration, they find they have few options. Orange tackles this subject through a prisoner who returns to Litchfield after violating parole. She explains herself this way:

When you get out, they gonna be up your ass like the KGB. Curfew every night. Piss in a cup whenever they say. You’ve got to go do three job interviews in a week for jobs you never gonna get….Minimum wage is some kind of joke. I got part-time work at Pizza Hut and still owe the prison $900 in fees I gotta pay back…I ain’t got no place to stay.

This is the reality that formerly incarcerated Americans face. Drug offenders (disproportionately women) are often prohibited from using public housing upon release, and that includes staying in someone else’s public housing unit. In many states, they can’t get food stamps. And most employers have no interest in hiring someone with a criminal record. So the former prisoners have no housing, no food, no job – how exactly are they supposed to become the productive citizens we claim we want them to be?

Disproportionate sentences are another factor that boosts the US prison population, and in Orange’s first episode, Piper explains how that affected her. For carrying a suitcase full of money on a single occasion, she pled guilty to criminal conspiracy, which gave her a one-year sentence. If she had gone to trial, she would have been charged with a worse crime carrying a mandatory minimum sentence that would have been much longer. She, like countless actual Americans, was bullied into a plea deal because the alternative would have been catastrophic. Orange gives no further attention to mandatory minimums after this one scene, but the fact that it was even broached is an improvement on typical TV crime dramas.

Sins of Omission

There are, however, deep problems with the criminal justice system that Orange does not raise. Over the course of 13 episodes, the show never conveys the sheer size of our prison system. The United States has 2.2 million people incarcerated, which makes us the prison capital of the world – both in absolute number and per capita. Count the people on probation and parole and the number is seven million. Add everyone with a criminal record and it’s 65 million. One might get the sense from watching Orange that these are just a few people huddled in the shadows of American life. But there are neighborhoods completely devastated by mass incarceration – areas where barely anyone can get a job, children hardly know one or more of their parents and the drug trade is just about the only way to make a living and claim social status. Moreover, at a price of $74 billion a year, incarceration is sapping money that could be invested in education, job programs, and social services to prevent crime from happening in the first place.

The show also glosses over the criminal justice system’s racial bias. In New York City, where many of these women come from, there are more than 1800 stop-and-frisks conducted everyday – and 85% of those stopped are blacks and Latinos. Nationally, blacks and Latinos are three times more likely than whites to get searched during a traffic stop. And once women leave prison, they’ll find more racial disparities: their wages grow slower than those of formerly incarcerated whites, and several states ban felons from working in fields like nursing and child care that are staffed disproportionately by women of color. One might say that orange has long been black.

Ultimately, though, these sins of omission are venial, not mortal. The show demonstrates a solid commitment to generating empathy for prisoners and exposing the systemic problems that plague criminal justice in the United States. Besides, the show has been on for one season only; even The Wire took five years to unpack the various factors that shape and constrain US criminal justice. Orange has been renewed for a second season, so there’s plenty of time for the show’s writers to introduce more background on what brought those women into Litchfield Penitentiary and what life is like when they leave. If the first season is any indication, Orange will continue to elevate our expectations of what a prison show can be.

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