Orange is the New Black, a Netflix series, premiered in 2013 and immediately received great reviews. It is loosely based on Piper Kerman’s experiences while in FCI, Danbury. The show introduces a multicultural ensemble cast that illustrates a broad range of human experiences. It shows what happens when women are stuck together in one space and forced to live together. The purpose of this essay is to analyze this show on its main theme, which is the American prison system. It will illustrate the fundamental differences between Litchfield and a real federal correctional institute. It also highlights the show’s interaction with the audience and how its structure is based on conventions. Though humor and quirky romantic relationships are at the heart of the show, the show comments on a deeper level on the struggles women face in the American prison system.
The rape culture in jail is often joked about. The sad reality is that the “don’t drop the soap in the shower” joke is not just pure comical. Rapes occur in prisons; even in women’s facilities as portrayed in Orange is the New Black. The government, recently in 2003, stepped in officially to stop the dominant rape culture. Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act which introduced harsh penalties for those found culpable for rape all in an aim to reduce the number of victims. It also requires prison wardens to set up and fiercely adopt a no- tolerance policy for any form of physical violation. Despite the act, the show has primed viewers to learn that inmates can also get raped by those who are expected to protect them. This was propagated by the Equal Opportunity Employment Act of 1972. This act states that it is well in men’s rights to work as guards in women prisons. While this goes a long way in the setup of gender equity, it only heightens the chances of women being sexually exploited by these guards.
In the show, correctional officers sexually harass the prisoners. There is a male misogynistic guard who gropes women whenever he can get away with it, which is almost always. He also brags that he can get any sexual favors in exchange for half a cigarette. Other prison employees also abuse their power. Season 2 Episode 10 illustrates this when several women were frisked in search of contrabands and one inmate insisted she would only allow a female guard to inspect her. This landed her in solitary confinement for standing up to the manager (Lava, 2013). A manipulative and predatory guard also raped inmate Tiffany in Season 3 of the show. While the show does not portray just how bad the rape culture is in real federal correctional institutions, it sure does keep the conversation going by highlighting what happens behind bars. Sexual assault, particularly in prisons, continues to be a scourge in the society and needs to be discussed.
The inmates are portrayed as utterly human. They form a special bond to help each other get through the tough life. All through the four seasons, the women plan birthday parties for each other, provide pedicures and haircuts for trade, coordinate Secret Santa exchange, share commissary goods, and most importantly, provide emotional support. This is the case with women in real federal prisons. They are not any less human and rely on each other to survive the harsh time behind bars.
Another difference between the show and reality is the way the inmates get to choose the places they want to sit in the dining hall. In real prison halls, seats are filled out in a sequential manner and not by the inmate’s choice. Women do not get to choose who they want to sit with, and this might seem like an invitation to bickering and more often than not, fully fledged fights. The show portrays women sitting in ‘cliques’ chatting away. Another fad is that prisoners get served fresh, healthy food in prison Litchfield depicts inmates eating pies, sliced tomatoes and even fudge swirls. In real federal prisons, processed foods are the norm. This is because of the tight budget allocated to these public institutions. It also ensures there is equity such that every inmate is served the same food in the same portions.
Inmates wearing sweatshirts with hoods, earrings, sunglasses and scarves are a far cry from what happens in reality. Inmates are not allowed to wear them in prison because of the danger they pose. These clothes can be used to perpetrate or disguise many crimes. An inmate can sneak into the kitchen, steal a knife, stab an inmate and escape from it all by hiding their faces behind a sweatshirt hood. There can also be cases of escapee prisoners who cannot be identified by surveillance cameras because of hiding behind these outfits,
The show also seems to champion the idea of prisoners threatening staff with litigation to get what they want. The standard rules of civil liability seem not to apply in American prisons. Inmates often speak of suing prisons or even specific wardens because of ill treatment but it is almost impossible to do so. This is because they are barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity which states that the government cannot be sued for any employee actions performed within their statutory authority. The court has construed almost everything a guard does while in office is within statutory authority.
Despite these issues with the criminal justice system that the show has highlighted, there are other critical problems it does not raise. An example is how the show never conveys the sheer size of the prison system (Lava, 2013). The United States prison has 2.2 million people incarcerated, which makes it the prison capital of the world. The figure goes even higher when people on probation and parole are added. The total number of individuals with criminal records in the USA is 65 million (The Sentencing Project, 2016). By watching Orange is the New Black, one might get the sense that the characters are among the few huddled in the shadows of American life. This is contrary to the situation at hand where some neighborhoods are so devastated by mass incarceration. Children are left without parents because they are locked up behind bars.
Orange is the New Black sanitizes prison in very subtle ways. However, it is not an educational documentary about imprisoned women in the US prison systems and the negative experiences these women face at the hands of this flawed system. It is a television show intended to engage and entertain rather than educating or agitating. Nonetheless, it is a comedy- drama show that has gone against many conventions. It touches on subjects that are ignored in shows that fall under this category. It has done this by highlighting the plight of minority groups, including the Black and Latino Americans as well as the bias against transgender people. It has breached expected standards of popular shows by focusing on what is ailing the American society.
The Sentencing Project (2016). Retrieved from The Sentencing Project: http://www.sentencingproject.org/
Lava, J. (2013, August 10). What ‘Orange is the New Black’ Gets Right About the Prisons System- And What It Leaves Out. Retrieved from http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/18070-what-orange-is-the-new-black-gets-right-about-the-prison-system-and-what-it-leaves-out
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