While OITNB doesn’t claim to be a documentary of the lived-realities of incarcerated women, the show is positioned to be a vocal critic of our current “prison industrial complex,” and I’m afraid it misses that chance. Because OITNB is based on Piper Kerman’s memoir, might some confuse this “adventure” with the downtrodden experiences I’ve witnessed in each prison I’ve visited, including the female prison I currently teach in? There they don’t have professionally-dyed hair and designer glasses but wrinkles, grease-laden hair, pasty-white skin, and totally un-hip Velcro-close sneakers. Mental illness plagues female inmates in the US; thus, many are heavily-medicated, lethargic, and delusional. Largely due to the “War on Drugs,” the incarcerated female population has surged over the past 25 years.
Despite its racial diversity, OITNB centers on a white middle-class woman whose story isn’t representative of female inmates, thereby skirting a golden opportunity to showcase the realities of prison, and racial disparities therein. While we’ll see what the outcome is for the pregnant Hispanic inmate who has fallen for the C.O.—will she be shackled to her maternity bed while giving birth, as is the practice in 32 states?—we’re confident when Piper is released, she’ll slide back into her comfortable middle-class life.
Last year, the BOP announced it will convert the prison at Danbury, where women on OITNB “live”, to a male facility. This will require relocating some 1,000 women to other facilities, mostly to Alabama, disrupting numerous lives. Recently, The New York Times published a scathing report of the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Alabama (the receiving facility for all women entering ADOC).
Perhaps then my strongest critique of OITNB is that it fundamentally fails to communicate the essence of prison: the heaviness in the air, the odors, the oxygen-depletion one experiences upon entry. Each semester, I bring university students into prison, where they study sociology alongside inmates. A central reason I do so is because the popular culture they’re exposed to doesn’t do justice to that prison essence—especially not OITNB. In fact, the show may counter that goal more than support it, while repeating our nation’s history of “telling” the stories of people of color via a white-racial-frame.