The Essence of a Women's Prison: Where Orange Is the New Black Falls Short

Curator's Note

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.



Thank you for this fascinating “insider’s” take, Daisy, which made me reflect on the phenomenological limitations of the televisual (or cinematic) medium and how the prison genre attempts (or doesn’t) to get at that “essence” of what prison is actually like. One can imagine a Frederick Wiseman-style approach coming far closer, and BBC series Bad Girls’ drab palette and kitchen sink realism were memorably evocative, but still there’s a powerful sensory component that screen media is at a loss to convey. Of course the ways OITNB falls short has also to do with more concrete realities of prison as well as the entertainment industry. As your clip demonstrates, OITNB places Piper (and her impeccably groomed eyebrows) at show’s center, and her relationship with Alex (the most liberally adapted element of Kerman’s memoir) is the most privileged story arc of season 1. Yet there’s an intriguing paradox here, that while Piper was “the Trojan horse” that got OITNB made (in Kohan’s account), she’s also the character many viewers detest. Perhaps it’s satisfying, then, to watch her trials and humiliations, and maybe even to admire her tenacity (as Maya’s post references). But for the show’s creators, “relatability” trumps likeability – and what’s relatable, in this viewpoint, is whiteness and middle-classness. There's a gendered aspect to it as well. As the discussion in/around Sasha’s post pointed out, there’s a premium put on masculinity that restricts it to non-Butch, non-Asian bodies. Femininity is highly restrictive as well, with the mandate that it be “beautiful” – which still gets defined mostly as young, thin, and femme. These, along with her whiteness and middle-classness, were the qualities that made Piper so attractive to the show’s creators. Interestingly, they’re also what made both fictional and real-life Piper an ideal drug mule.

Daisy's post valuably points us back to the brutal realities of the contemporary American regime of mass incarceration, a regime that is, in Adam Gopnik's words (New Yorker 1/30/2012), "the moral scandal of American life." No doubt OITNB falls far short of an authentic depiction of prison existence, perhaps because of the imperatives of what is, ultimately, entertainment, meant to attract eyeballs in a competitive marketplace, perhaps in part because the realities of prison simply can't be adequately represented in an audio/visual medium--note Daisy's emphasis on the smells, the atmosphere, inside prison. A TV show can't substitute for the firsthand experience of the world of incarceration Daisy's student's receive. Yet I've never finished watching an episode of OITNB thinking, to quote Richard Pryor's famous routine, "Thank God we got penitentiaries." Perhaps a program like OITNB shows at least the beginnings of a willingness on the part of the American public to rethink our vicious, inhumane system of punishments.

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