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.