Black is Always the New Black

Butterfly WomanHey all, sorry I missed last week’s post. Orange is the New Black season 3 came out on Friday, and I’ve spent the last week marathoning through it as best I can to write about it today. There will be spoilers, obviously, so if you haven’t finished it, go do that and then come back. However, before I get to season 3, I wanted to address Orange is the New Black isn’t accurate little article that came through my feed earlier this week. For those who haven’t read it, it’s basically a list of four ways in which OitNB misrepresents women’s prisons in this country. Well, some of these criticisms are accurate, but some are based on information we simply don’t know. So let’s address those before addressing stuff from the new season.

The first point they raise is that most women in prison are there for low level drug crimes, thanks to the War on Drugs, brought about by George Bush Sr. back in the 1980s. I would like to point out that the prison is stated as having a couple hundred inmates, and while we get to see a lot of them regularly (about 30-40, depending on who you count, based on how long they’re on the show [I counted 33 when counting those who appear for more than one season]), we really only know the actual crimes of a few of them. To highlight this, I’m going to make a list here of all the inmates we know and see by the end of season 2, and I’ll mark those we know or have an idea of their crimes. Those we know for sure their crimes, either because we’ve seen their arrest/trial or they’ve straight up told us, will be marked with an asterisk, while those we know most of the basics about but not the specific details (such as with Red, where we know she’s in for her connections to the Russian mafia, but not the exact crime) will be marked with an exclamation mark. Finally, those we know nothing about will be marked with a question mark. The reason I’m doing this is because the show likes to imply one thing but then later reveal another, as with Morello who was hinted in the first season of being in for internet fraud, but is revealed in season 2 to actually be in for violent stalking. However, in a few instances, I will address how season 3 changes things, so be warned, spoilers come after this point.

Piper Chapman* – low level operative in drug cartel (carried money once)
Alex Vause* – higher level operative in the drug cartel
Claudette Pelage (gonna go with ! for this one) – only stays for one season, but clearly shown to have been part of a slave trafficking operation, as well as having murdered someone for hurting one of her girls. The unclear area is which crime (if not both) she is in for.
Galina “Red” Reznikov! – As stated above, we know she’s in for her mafia ties, but not what the exact crime is
Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren? – We see some of her childhood near the beginning of season 2, but we are never clearly shown what her exact crime is.
Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson! – It’s hinted that she is in for her role in Vee’s drug selling organization, but it is never clearly shown this is why she was charged.
Nicky Nichols (! prior to season 3, * as of season 3) – We know that she’s a former drug addict, and it is hinted that she is in for drug related crimes, but the exact crime is never shown prior to season 3. Shown to be in for breaking and entering and possession of heroin.
Tiffany “Pensatucky” Doggett* – While it’s made clear that she’s a former drug addict, it’s also made clear at the end of season 1 that her actual crime is murdering an abortion clinic nurse.
Dayanara “Daya” Diaz! – Strongly hinted that she got caught up in Cesar’s heroin operation, but never explicitly stated.
Lorna Morello! – This is the bait and switch I mentioned earlier, but not the only one.
Poussey Washington (this could be either ! or ?) – It is shown that as a teen, she tried to murder someone for screwing over her family, but it is not made explicit that this is the reason. I have my doubts that it is why she’s in, as she was stopped by her father before anyone else saw the weapon, and had she been tried for it, would have ended in a military facility rather than federal.
Gloria Mendoza* – Fraud, though unclear if it’s because of the food stamps or the santeria merchandise. Hinted that it’s because of the food stamps.
Cindy “Black Cindy” Hayes? – We are led to suspect that it’s because of her stealing while working at TSA, but it could as easily be over drug charges, as she is seen to be a smoker of marijuana.
Sophia Burset* – Credit card fraud/identity theft.
Janae Watson* – Robbing a liquor store.
Tricia Miller* – Shoplifting
Carrie “Big Boo” Black? – Doesn’t receive flashbacks until season 3, and even those are about her personality, not her crime.
Yoga Jones* – Tells Janae the story of how she accidentally killed a young boy. Her charges are either murder or manslaughter of some form.
Brook Soso! – Political protesting, though it is unclear what she did that landed her in prison, with an actual sentence, rather than just some time in jail.
Yvonne “Vee” Parker! – Highly implied that it has to do with her drug operation, but never specifically stated.
Rosa Cisneros* – Bank robbing
Gina Murphey? – No flashbacks, even by end of season 3
Sister Jane Ingalls* – Implied through season 1 and much of season 2 to be due to chaining herself to a flagpole, but is later stated to actually be for breaking and entering and trespassing.
Aleida Diaz! – Much as with her daughter Daya, implied to be for drug charges, but never made explicit.
Norma Romano? – No flashbacks prior to season 3, and season 3 flashbacks only give implications, but nothing solid.
Leanne Taylor? – As with Norma, receives flashbacks in season 3 that give implications, but nothing solid. Is known to be a meth-user.
Angie Rice? – No flashbacks, but also a former meth-user.
Loretta? – Same as Angie above.
Maria Ruiz! – Implied that she’s in for being caught up in her boyfriend’s drug operations, but never shown. No flashbacks.
Marisol “Flaca” Gonzalez (? prior to season 3, * as of season 3) – No flashbacks prior to season 3, though season 3 reveals she’s in for either selling drugs, or fraud (she had no actual drugs, but told people they were buying drugs from her).
Maritza Ramos? – No flashbacks.
Anita DeMarco? – Has been in the prison 12 years, same as Red, but no mention of her crime yet.
Blanca Flores? – Could also have been caught up in drug selling for her boyfriend, Diablo, but never made clear.
Mei Chang (? prior to season 3, ! in season 3) – No flashbacks prior to season 3, season 3 flashback gives hints that it could be for fraud, murder, or organized crime.
Jimmy, Freida, Irva, and Taslitz? – The golden girls. Imply that many of the Latina girls are in for drug offenses, Freida claims to be in for cutting off her boyfriend’s penis with a dull knife. Unclear if this was truth or just scare tactics.
Weeping Woman? – Not even named, but seen regularly in the background when others are at the phones, as well as other times.

That’s a long list (it’s a large recurring cast), with a lot of implied charges and others which are left completely unknown. Now, that still leaves the numbers slightly off, as the real world numbers are 99 drug charges for every murder, but there does seem to be some heavy drug implications present. Especially considering that even with this large cast, we’re seeing only roughly 10% of the entire prison population (5% after it is doubled in size at the end of season 3). And about half of the cast is either implied to be in for drug charges or not shown at all. So while it may not be 100% accurate, focusing on the more colorful members of the prison, there are still a lot of drug charges.

The second point raised in the article is that most women in prison (about 2/3 of the total) have children under the age of 18. This actually seems to be shown a lot. Aleida still has children that age, Gloria’s sons are still that age, Sophia’s son is a teen, and there are a few girls who get pregnant before coming in or while there (in the case of Daya). Even with Red, whose sons are shown to be adults now, has been in for 12 years, meaning they may have still been young when she was brought in. Also, Anita is stated to be a grandmother by now, though as with Red, it’s unclear how old her kids were when she first arrived 12 years prior. As above, this seems to be a matter of the show looking at a select portion of the overall inmate population, which should not be taken as the whole. The first episode of season 3 is about Mother’s Day, and how all the various women deal with either their feelings toward their mothers, or about being mothers and in prison.

The third point raised is that many women need mental health issues addressed. Sure, the article raises examples of “Crazy Eyes” and Jimmy, but these are extreme examples, with the latter clearly having Alzheimer’s of some sort, while the former is implied to have some form of psychosis, such as schizophrenia. The author neglects to understand the wide spectrum of mental health issues. It is repeatedly stated that many of the women in the show suffer from depression, which is one of the most common mental health issues facing women. Another common mental health issue among women is that of addiction, which is addressed by the first point about many women being in for drug crimes. Another common issue is PTSD brought about by either childhood trauma or sexual assault. I think it’s safe to say that they actually do show this, to some extent. Daya’s relationship with her mother Aleida and Nicky’s relationship with her mother are both shown to be brought about by neglect, the most common form of childhood abuse.

The final point raised by the article is one that is overall addressed here: that women’s prisons are relatively new, relatively few in number, and mostly filled because of the “war on drugs” legislation brought about in the 1980s, with numbers having increased ten fold since 1980 (twice the rate of the growth of men’s prisons). The article even says that the show helps address some of these issues, helps open our eyes to the issues of women’s prisons, but that it does not address some of the fundamental issues regarding the prison industrial complex. To this, I’d like to simply respond with this: it’s television, even if Netflix rather than broadcast. And more importantly, it’s fiction (based on reality). In the real world, Piper Kerman (the basis of Piper Chapman) and Larry Smith (the basis for Larry in the show) did not break up, but instead married in 2006. Likewise, Cleary Wolters (the real life Alex Vause) was only ever in the same prison as Piper for about five or six weeks, when they participated in the hearing of another member of the ring. You know, that one episode at the start of season 2? Does anyone criticize the Sopranos for not properly portraying life in the Italian mafia? Or how the L Word is not really indicative of actual lesbian relationships? Sure, maybe now, after the fact. The fact is, Orange is the New Black is there to open our eyes, to bring about these discussions, to cause us to learn more for ourselves, all while still being entertaining.

And while it may not be a perfect, 100% representation of women’s prison (because who would want to watch that?), it does have some very accurate stuff, particularly beginning in season 3. First off, in this season, the prison gets taken over by a private contractor, which is very much an issue in America with prisons. The prison industrial complex (PIC) is just that, a business designed to bring about more business. In one scene, we see a meeting taking place, where the new guy who is essentially the warden now raises the issue of programs for rehabilitation of inmates, including replacing the books in the library with more books helping them with their cases. While it isn’t outright said, it can pretty much be seen on the faces of the others in the room the response: “why would we want to rehabilitate them?” It is later mentioned, in the end of that scene and in a couple other scenes, that no one in the company cares about the long term, only that the current and next quarters look good. This is the thing about the PIC: they want people to be back in as much as possible. They don’t want rehabilitation, and they want harsher sentences for lesser crimes, hence the existence of many of the laws addressed in the article. Mandatory minimum sentences exist because of this need to keep people in prison more, as that raises more money for the PIC.

Another, very accurate portrayal is that of trans women in prison. Now, by Monday, I had only seen a little bit of the season, but we discussed it briefly in class (mostly a “no spoilers please” kind of discussion), and one classmate said that Sophia got herself caught up in a lot that she shouldn’t have. I hadn’t seen much with her by then, as most of what they were referring to was late in the season, but having seen it, I’m actually happy they showed it. See, Sophia is running into issues with her son, who is suffering as much from her being in there as she is, becoming likely to end up in prison himself one day (one of the points raised by the article), and while she is helping Gloria see her own son in the attempts to stop him from following her into prison, the two end up getting into it, each blaming the other’s son of being the bad influence. This leads to Aleida spreading rumors about Sophia in response to a fight that Sophia and Gloria got into, and these rumors result in Sophia being attacked for being trans. When asked how to address the issue with her safety, the new corporate overlords deem that she must be put into solitary for her own protection. This leads to one of the scenes showing how the PIC works, where Caputo and the new warden are trying to prevent legal battles and loss of future funds through lawsuits, but the father of the new warden reminds them that nothing matters to the higher ups except the present. So while Caputo initially tries to fight for Sophia, he ends up giving in, and she is left in solitary “for her own protection.” Keep in mind that solitary is shown to be horrible by all the cis girls we see going down there, such as Janae, Piper, and Pennsatucky.

In the real world, this is often done with transgender inmates, also justified as being “for their own protection.” Sophia is an interesting case, as she’s explicitly stated to be in a women’s prison because she had genital reconstructive surgery. In most cases, a trans person who is incarcerated has not had such surgeries, either because they do not wish to undergo such a surgery, or cannot afford to do so. This results in the trans individual finding themselves in a prison for the sex they were assigned at birth, as is the case of CeCe McDonald, who went to a men’s prison for manslaughter when she killed a man in self-defense. Simply put, there is no prison in the United States where a person is assigned on the basis of their gender identity over the basis of their genitals.

All of this said, does Orange is the New Black have its faults when portraying women’s prisons accurately? Of course it does. However, it succeeds in raising the issues that lead to discussions such as this one. If it was closer to a documentary, it would not be as long lasting as it has been and will be, nor reach as large of an audience as it does. So while we do need to discuss how the show differs, we should not hate on it because it differs. Remember the MST3K mantra: “it’s just a show, I should really just relax.” Use the show as a springboard to have these discussions without throwing it aside for its inaccuracies. If it had been more accurate and lasted only one season, we would never have got to the issues of motherhood, drug crimes, and trans hardships brought about in seasons 2 and 3. Unlike those guys in the PIC who only care about the short term, this show is playing the long game in educating us. And for that, I think it should be praised.

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