Norm Reviews: Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black (OITNB) is the newest program in Netflix’s burgeoning foray into original content. The premise is based upon the true story of Piper Kerman, a self-described WASP from Boston who, during an “adventurous, lost soul phase” after college, helped her girlfriend (a heroin dealer) sneak a suitcase of drug money into a foreign country. Ten years later (the statute of limitations of that particular crime is 12 years, by the way), Kerman is living a respectable life and engaged to Larry Smith, a writer. She is now an advocate for women’s prison reform.

The premise itself is a commentary on the overreach of tough-on-crime drug laws. It challenges our belief that “nice people” can never wind up behind bars. In fact, they often do. Perhaps more often than the average American might think.

Every episode of OITNB spends time focusing on one or two of the other inmates who share the prison with Piper. These flashback sequences often reveal how an otherwise “nice” person might find themselves serving a prison sentence. During the first few episodes, I find the flashbacks work just a little too hard to evoke sympathy from the audience. Later into the series, these sequences improve noticeably and are some of the show’s best moments. “I am in here because I am no different from anybody else in here,” Piper says during a visit with her mother. This is the sentiment that these sequences are clearly trying to invoke, and they are largely successful.

At the same time, OITNB manages to make prison feel closer than many of its viewers might have thought by illustrating the frightening overreach of this country’s war on drugs. Drug use and addiction lay at the heart of several characters’ back stories, as are the federal sentencing guidelines that give judges little power to do anything but send non-violent drug offenders to prison.

OITNB does not shy away from the subject of abuse by correctional officers. I appreciate OITNB’s desire to show the unsuspecting viewer at home the many indignities and abuses that female inmates across the country suffer at the hands of bent COs. OITNB shows COs fathering children with inmates, selling them dope, trading them dope for sexual favors, turning a deliberate blind eyes to inmate-on-inmate violence, and a slew of other crimes and sins that likely have corresponding true stories from real prisons. But the small cast of CO characters forces OINTB to have all of them display at least two of these behaviors apiece. The viewer at home should see this as creative liberty taken for the sake of compelling television (which OITNB certainly is) and not as unfair slandering of corrections officers.

What impressed me most about OITNB was the way it kept Piper’s personal story parallel to her prison experience. In one scene, Larry’s parents try to persuade him not to follow through with his marriage to Piper. They urge Larry to wait to see what Piper is like after having served her prison term. The sentiment behind their words is, doubtlessly, a sentiment that many of the viewers at home would have if their sons or daughters decided to marry someone who has yet to finish serving a prison term. Larry’s parents assume that prison, dank, disgusting, and violent place that it is, will make Piper a worse person, a person to whom they do not want their son shackled for life. Everyone who sympathizes with this feeling should then ask themselves what, exactly, is the purpose of our prisons if they make people worse than before they went in?

Even when a person leaves prison largely intact, that person is often no more prepared or able to avoid prison in the future. Only two characters leave the prison during the first season of OITNB, but one of them returns within two episodes. Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson spends two episodes preparing for a parole hearing that wins her an early release. However, after her release, she finds that the only distant relative willing to take her in makes her sleep on the floor, and allows the use of her floor for one or two nights at a time. Taystee returns to prison after committing a new crime with the intent of returning to prison because, ultimately, it was easier than life outside. Although I appreciate OITNB’s attempt at showing how a lack of outside support contributes to the revolving door that is our prison system, I have never, in my years of representing current, former, and future prisoners, met a person who wanted to return to jail. Perhaps my range of experience is too narrow.

One character in the series commits a rather sensational crime. She arrives to court ready to see her public defender, but a private lawyer seduces her into accepting his services — without pay. This is interesting because it is one of only two places in the season where public defenders are mentioned at all. The private attorney preys upon her distrust of public defenders so that he can represent her for his own selfish reasons. I can tell you that the counsel she received was very poor quality.

In the final two episodes of OITNB, four major characters accuse Piper of being a bad person. These people include her fiance, her lover, and her fellow inmates. Their reasons vary, but they all stem from actions by Piper that, at the time, were totally understandable. This occurs simultaneously with a subplot in which a senior prison official teaches a junior corrections officer to stop thinking of the inmates as human beings. It made me wonder how different the prison experience would be if it were not so preoccupied with telling the inmates that they are “bad people.” Bad actions can be corrected; bad people cannot. With the rate of recidivism so high, one almost wonders if those in charge benefit from that revolving door.

Overall, OITNB has truths to offer its viewers about a population that is largely invisible and voiceless. I hope its message reaches lots of other people through the lure of high quality television. If you enjoy reading this blog and are interested in what happens to my clients after they’re my clients, you should check it out.

Respectfully submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

Norm Reviews: Gideon’s Army

 

When assistant public defender Travis Williams promised the camera that he would tattoo the name of every client who lost at jury trial on his back, my first thought was, “He’s going to run out of room.”

This concern had nothing to do with Mr. Williams’ skill or dedication as an advocate for his clients–quite the contrary–but the electric idealism that sustains new public defenders is precious and all-too-temporary. I imagine that bearing each and every trial loss on his body will weigh like a lead weight around his psyche, and the weight can quickly snuff that spark. If Mr. Williams’ trial calendar continues to follow the pace of the murderous meat grinder in which he appears to practice, he may find himself with several dozen names to arrange within his first five years.

Travis is one of three subjects featured in Dawn Porter’s excellent documentary, “Gideon’s Army” which is playing on HBO. Gideon’s Army focuses primarily upon the lives of three public defenders in the American South: Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander, and June Hardwick. The film also features Jonathan Rapping and the folks at Gideon’s Promise (known formerly as the Southern Public Defender Training Center), who appear to serve as equal parts mentors, senseis, and therapists to the young public defenders in the South who participate in their program.

Travis is our introduction to the world of public defenders, but the film’s climax comes when Brandy Alexander wins a “not guilty” verdict for her client, Demontes Wright, who faced a life sentence because two brothers accused him of taking a small amount of cash from their pizza parlor’s register. Brandy’s story cleanly captures the unique agony of being a public defender with an innocent client; Brandy knows full well that her innocent client could go down at trial. In Georgia, a guilty verdict for this charge meant a life sentence. Mr. Wright had recently resumed his education and looked to be on the verge of getting his adult life started on the right foot until being charged with this offense. His very life was at the mercy of a store clerk who identified Mr. Wright as the robber but admitted on cross-examination that he never really looked at the robber’s face. The state’s case hung entirely on the word of this witness, and across the country, such flimsy evidence is used every day to convict people of crimes. Ms. Alexander literally saved this man’s life; it makes for a stirring ending.

I see why Ms. Porter didn’t want to make Gideon’s Army too depressing, but the happy ending gives the viewer an artificial sense of a young public defender’s efficacy: that is, that the systemic inequities of our justice system can be overcome by idealism alone. Idealism is so featured in the documentary, it is almost a character in itself. Idealism is the true hero of the story.

This touches on a widespread phenomena of the State outsourcing its responsibility to see to it that society functions by relying on idealists or other “faith-based” institutions. This excuses and exonerates the powerful Alphas from their hedonistic money-grabbing because the empathic, bleeding-heart Betas will keep things from slipping too far into decay. And when charity proves insufficient, there is money to be made; for-profit prisons flourish where faith fails. The problem is that this effectively privatizes social services so they are available firstly to those who agree to the agenda of the organization caring for them. Do we really want to distribute justice in the same way we parcel out canned food, clean needles and sleeping cots?

Gideon’s Army is noticeably silent on those inequities in our justice system that cannot be overcome solely through plucky idealism. The system needs public defenders to keep it honest because without them, the system would cheat. This notion is unthinkable to most people, and I had hoped that Gideon’s Army would open a crucial opportunity to begin the process of re-educating those who take justice for granted. I would have loved to have seen Travis cross-examine one of those bent narco cops who insist under oath that his client “consented” to being searched, thereby making the search legal. Prosecutorial misconduct is a leading cause of convictions being reversed on appeal, and despite this, it remains one of the least investigated variety of ethics violation by state bar associations nationwide.

Again, I can see why Ms. Porter focused on the nobility of her subjects and not on the misdeeds of their opponents, but I hope the viewer doesn’t get the false impression that prosecutors and police are free of wrongdoing. Arresting and searching someone without probable cause is just as illegal as robbing a pizza parlor, but cops and DAs are on the side of power; their law-breaking is not only ignored, but most people actively disbelieve its existence. Sanctimonious DAs who overcharge clients simply because they’ve mistaken the rods up their asses for the needle of a moral compass are ruining a life, a family, and a community to a much greater extent than swiping money out of a cash register does.

Public defenders are the only ones holding the line between “well-intended” overzealous prosecution and a police state. Ms. Porter exposes the uncomfortable truth of how thin that line is and how, in some communities, it has effectively already been crossed. For many minority and low-income clients, justice exists only for those that can afford it. Do we really want to live in an America where innocence is for sale?

I understand that my opinion of Gideon’s Army may differ from a layperson’s. As the film itself points out, a mere 15,000 public defenders exist nationwide to represent millions of indigent accused. We are clearly too small a market to be this film’s primary target, not to mention that many of us don’t have a premium cable subscription. At minimum, my hope is that a layperson watching this movie would think to themselves afterward, “That is noble, worthwhile work that these people are doing; maybe we owe it to them to make the job just a little less miserable.”

Without public defenders, justice doesn’t happen. And public defenders deserve the resources necessary to carry out their work. I do not wish to criticize the lawyers featured in Gideon’s Army, but my impression is that the job function they carry out seems more like social work than actual criminal defense. Giving a client a thorough explanation of what is happening so he knows exactly where he is in the process of being screwed is certainly part of the PDs job function, but there’s more to it than that. As a public defender, I am part of a team of lawyers, paralegals, investigators, lab technicians and other experts who work together for the defense. If a PD office can’t afford to test for finger prints that might exonerate a client, then how can it give truly effective assistance of counsel? And I think the harsh truth of the matter is that it cannot. If clients are pleading guilty just to avoid the possibility of a life-sentence, then the “system” is not working.

I find myself wondering whether the film’s triumphant ending avoided confronting the viewer with the hardest, most bitter truth about our criminal justice system: innocent people can and do go to jail, sometimes for forever. I held my breath during Mr. Wright’s verdict and I felt genuine relief as the “not guilty” was read. I would never, ever wish for any other result for him. But part of me wonders what kind of impact the film would have had if it forced the viewer to watch as an innocent person – with evidence on his side – goes down anyway. Although many people understand, intellectually, that innocent people can and do get convicted, almost nobody knows what it looks and feels like as you watch it happen. Most people believe that those in prison deserve to be there. I can tell you that many of them do not.

At least one Supreme Court justice denies that any innocent person has ever been wrongly convicted and executed in the past century. With this in mind, the lesson that Gideon’s Army teaches us is more urgent than ever.

Respectfully submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

Norm reviews Jeff Adachi’s “The Slanted Screen”

ImageI have been a Netflix subscriber for more than five years, and I am genuinely impressed by its ability to recommend movies based on my previous viewing habits. However, it’s recommendations rarely intersect with my work.

But recently, Netflix recommended a documentary on the changing roles of Asian-Americans in cinema. It was a film by none other than Jeff Adachi, San Francisco’s Public Defender who bears the distinction of being one of the few public defenders in the nation who is elected to his position by popular vote. His film is called The Slanted Screen and was released in 2006.

The Slanted Screen begins with an interesting film history of Asian actors. Did you know that the silent film era was one of the golden ages for Asian actors in Hollywood? In his day, Sessue Hayakawa was a leading man mentioned in the same breath as Douglas Fairbanks or Charlie Chaplin. The film goes on to describe the next era for Asian American actors in war movies as well as the martial arts genre. The most interesting part of the documentary, for me, was learning about the responses to such roles. I think I now understand why contemporary Asian-American actors have such mixed feelings about Bruce Lee.

The second half is devoted in large part to discuss the desexualization of Asian-Men in mainstream American film. Essentially, systemic desexualization exists side-by-side with a pervasive refusal on the part of viewers to accept Asian-Americans as leading romantic roles. Adachi explores whether society’s racism is providing a market for media stereotypes, or whether the media stereotypes are the cause of society’s racism.

The documentary is directed in a way that feels like Adachi is presenting evidence backed with testimony to effect a certain point of view. This seems to be congruent with what one would expect from an attorney. And like one might expect, Adachi presents his cases well. The “evidence” Adachi uses are clips from popular movies and his “expert testimony” comes from Asian American actors and writers. The scenes he uses are well chosen to display certain stereotypes, both positive and negative. Whether or not I shared his interpretations, his examples are all thought-provoking.

Case in point: Adachi cites the character of Mike Yanagita,  of the Cohen brothers’ Fargo, as an example of the stereotypically desexualized Asian-American male.

Mike and Marge enjoy Diet Coke’s at the Radisson

When I first saw Fargo, I didn’t think that the Cohen’s poke fun at Mike Yanagita because he is Asian; I thought it was because he’s Minnesotan. And Marge Gunderson is not unavailable to Mike because he’s Asian; she’s unavailable because she’s happily married and pregnant. But just because one stereotype is more prominent doesn’t mean the other no longer exists; Choosing to see Mike Yanagita as a Mid-Westerner doesn’t make him less Asian. Would I view that scene differently if the man Marge meets at the Radisson was of a different race?

Adachi provides more questions to get your film club or class discussion going.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Slanted Screen. It’s about an hour long and it’s streaming on Netflix.

Respectfully Submitted,

Norm DeGuerre