Jenji Kohan, the creator of Netflix’s new hit series Orange Is The New Black, had to grapple with a pretty serious conundrum: How do you make a compulsively watchable series about a milieu whose defining characteristic is boredom? And yet, the show’s writers have pulled it off.
Of course, they have had to take some liberties; the series is based on Piper Kerman’s memoir but is highly fictionalized. So what did they get right about prison life, and what did they miss?
Though my year in federal prison was quite unlike Piper Kerman’s — largely on account of the differences between men’s and women’s prisons — here’s my assessment of where Orange nailed it and where it missed the mark.
3. Here’s what they get right:
4. Small things can have outsize consequences — in positive and negative ways.
A tiny slight or infraction in prison can lead to serious problems. Piper’s offhand remark about the quality of prison cooking leads to Red starving her out for two weeks, and her vaguely dirty dancing with Alex leads to the SHU (Special Housing Unit — solitary confinement). I can verify this; I saw a guy get slocked — struck by a sock wrapped around a padlock — for cutting in line. Kissinger once said that in academia, “the battles are so bitter because the stakes are so small,” and that is doubly true in prison.
Conversely, given the general privation, the smallest kindness in prison can go a long way. Piper’s creation of medicated lotion for Red’s back gets her right with Red and affords her renewed access to food; a few donuts from Counselor Healy, who oversees the Women’s Advocacy Council (WAC) are seen by most WAC members as a major coup. One of my main strategies to stay safe (I came in at 117 pounds) was to quietly give stolen tomatoes and onions to certain powerful inmates, which effectively helped me build critical alliances. I never dreamed that a bruised tomato might help save my life.
5. If boredom is one defining feature of prison life, then ingenuity is the other.
From Sophia’s stylish silver shower shoes made from duct tape and Morello’s Kool-Aid as mascara/lip gloss to the hooch at Tricia’s Irish wake, prisoners learn to make do with less. This echoes my experience.
I saw inmates cut hair with toenail clippers (no pimped-out full-service salons like Sophia’s!), cook grilled cheese with a laundry room iron, and fashion free weights from massive boulders in laundry bags and tied around a bar.
6. Prisoners are horny, and they’ll pursue sex more persistently than most on the outside.
You might think Crazy Eyes seems, well, crazy, given her dogged pursuit of Chapman despite repeated rejection and Piper’s invocation of her fiancé. But then you probably haven’t been to prison, where the general assumption is that any romantic commitments on the outside are null and void during one’s bid. A hulking, mustachioed guy known as Big C who’d been locked up 15 years pounded the windows of his cell trying to get my attention every day when I came home from my job, and he attended every basketball and softball game I played in for months, whooping each time I made a play. Only the threat of violence from Ville, a cornrowed and feared 315-pound ally of mine, tempered Big C’s enthusiasm.
7. The prison doesn’t really care about prisoners.
The prison cares about two things: staying within budget, and staying out of the newspaper. It’s why, as in one Orange episode, they serve food intended for Iraq war troops nearly a decade earlier. It’s why they coolly tell suffering inmates that “we are only required to give enough (medication) to maintain,” not to try to ameliorate. And it’s why when Tricia overdoses, even the prison social worker derides the institution’s attempt to apprise inmates of services to help them cope.
And COs care about safety (mostly, their own), keeping their job, and exercising power. That’s why they ransack cells instead of merely searching them. It’s why prison staff will often look the other way when violence looms. And it’s why there’s almost no attempt to educate, rehabilitate, or train inmates for careers on the outside.
8. Discipline is arbitrary.
Sometimes you can tell a CO to fuck himself without consequence, as occurs more than once in Orange. Other times, it earns you an immediate trip to the SHU, as with Janae after the screwdriver disappearance. And occasionally, COs will temporarily accept being cursed, but lie in wait for what they perceive to be a stronger disciplinary opportunity, as Healy does with Piper.
9. The visiting room can be incredibly sad.
Arguably the most depressing scene of the first season comes when Aleida Diaz receives a visit from her boyfriend and children. She repeatedly snaps at her kids, demands money, and attacks her boyfriend for asking how her (also incarcerated) daughter Daya is doing. Piper’s visits with her self-absorbed friend Polly and self-absorbed fiancé Larry are terrible in their own way.
Nothing is worse than a visit that ends poorly, such as with a parent reminding a child of his/her malfeasance, or a spouse guilt-tripping his partner about being away. Because when a visitor leaves, inmates know it may be months or even years before they have a chance to see him again — if they ever do.
10. People antagonize enemies just before their antagonists’ release dates.
When Big Boo goads ex-“wife” Mercy as Mercy prepares for the door, it is not a coincidence. Inmates with ample time left often do this as a way of luring their enemies into fights in hopes that staff will write up the enemy and revoke her “good time,” causing a longer stay, probably in the SHU or at a higher security prison. Happened to me — I got cold-cocked in a basketball game, in which friendly inmates had urged me not to play — just days before my release. Luckily for me, I couldn’t retaliate: I was unconscious.
11. Our system is practically designed for recidivism — and some inmates are OK with that.
The Orange inmates have a big farewell party for Taystee, but she’s back in a month for violating parole. When confronted by her disappointed best friend Poussey, she defends herself.
“When you get out, they be up your ass like the KGB. Curfew every night. Piss in a cup whenever they say… Minimum wage is [a] joke. I got part-time work at Pizza Hut and still owe the prison $900 in fees… I was sleeping on the floor of my second cousin apartment like a dog… I got lice. Everyone I know is poor, in jail, or gone.”
Since drug offenders are typically denied food stamps and the ability to stay (even as guests) in public housing, many ex-offenders lack basic necessities upon release. A job would help fix that, but in a slack labor market, most employers won’t hire ex-felons. Yet, without housing, food, or a job, we expect parolees to become law-abiding, contributing members of society.
Some inmates get comfortable on the inside. “At least in here you get dinner,” concludes Taystee. “I know how to play it here. Where to be, and what rules to follow. I got a bed…” Accusing someone of having this mentality — being “institutionalized” — is one of prison’s sharpest insults.
12. Here’s what they get wrong — or at least, here are things that are very different in men’s prisons:
13. Piper talks way too much when she arrives, and says implausibly naïve things.
I didn’t say more than 10 words in my first month and never spoke unless addressed, which seemed true for most first-time offenders.
A couple of Piper’s early lines stood out as particularly improbable. One comes when she tells a gaggle of fellow inmates, “But I read that you’re not supposed to…” I cannot believe anyone knowing the stereotype of a white-collar inmate would ever say that.
A second line comes when she is informed about her work placement in the electrical shop and brashly tells a CO: “I think there’s been a mistake. I applied to work in the education department.” I also applied to teach in prison, since I had a Ph.D and a decade of experience doing so. But when assigned to the warehouse docks to unload food trucks, I understood that it was no mistake, as I think most would.
14. The racial divide is even more stark.
In Orange, the races eat together, which was exceptionally rare at the Kentucky prison where I spent 2010. I did it my first week when I was the only white guy in my cell block and didn’t know any other whites; an Aryan Brotherhood member pulled me aside later that day and advised me not to do so again.
15. Snitching is a much bigger deal.
First, a defendant who named another defendant in a case (Alex and Piper) likely wouldn’t be incarcerated together out of concern for retribution attempts. Obviously, though, Alex’s presence is critical to the plot.
Second, Larry’s radio appearance probably would’ve destroyed her. It’s likely that her comments about Crazy Eyes and Miss Claudette would’ve sparked far more intense and widespread anger than they did. Also, given Piper’s obvious willingness to spill beans and her placement on the WAC by Healy, most inmates would’ve likely concluded (correctly) that Piper tipped COs off to the phone and (incorrectly) that she was culpable for other snitching. Once someone is labeled a prison snitch, his life is essentially over — not just over for a day.
16. You don’t tell your family and friends how miserable you are.
Telling your white upper-middle-class mom during a visit, “I get strip searched — squat and cough,” and “I had to give a lock of my hair to a transsexual” borders on sadistic. While you’re in prison, all but the most self-involved inmates do everything possible to shield loved ones from the harsh realities they face.
17. So much skin!
Now, I’m not complaining about Orange, but no male inmates would ever walk to the shower in a towel. In fact, many do so fully clothed, and those who fear assault may shower in shoes or combat boots. There were inmates in my cell block I saw every day for months but whose arms or legs I never glimpsed — no need to tempt anyone. Unlike Netflix, the last thing most inmates want is more viewers.
Jeff Smith is a professor of Politics and Advocacy at The New School and a former Missouri state senator who knows the difference between political science and politics.