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.
Here's what they get right:
Small things can have outsize consequences — in positive and negative ways.
If boredom is one defining feature of prison life, then ingenuity is the other.
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.
The prison doesn't really care about prisoners.
Discipline is arbitrary.
The visiting room can be incredibly sad.
People antagonize enemies just before their antagonists’ release dates.
Our system is practically designed for recidivism — and some inmates are OK with that.
Here’s what they get wrong — or at least, here are things that are very different in men’s prisons:
Piper talks way too much when she arrives, and says implausibly naïve things.
The racial divide is even more stark.
Snitching is a much bigger deal.
You don’t tell your family and friends how miserable you are.
So much skin!
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.