Approximately ten years ago, Piper Kerman served thirteen months at a minimum-security prison in Connecticut after laundering money for an international drug cartel. Kerman’s story – one of self doubt, psychological metamorphosis, and sexual tension – was later documented in her 2010 novel, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, which was transformed by Netflix and television writer Jenji Kohan into a dynamic comedy series driven by heart, soul, and streams of dialogue that would make even the toughest of sailors blush. Yes, Orange Is the New Black captured my heart in ways that other television shows have failed to do, no handcuffs necessary.
Set in a fictional women’s correctional facility in Litchfield, New York, the series owes its success not only to Kohan – whose brilliance has previously manifested itself in the 2005 dark comedy series, Weeds – but to the diverse and sympathetic set of characters (guards and inmates alike) who bring an overwhelming sense of humanity to what would otherwise be an estrogen-fueled version of Oz. While the series revolves around main character Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) and is told predominantly through her eyes, I found myself deeply invested in her fellow prisoners as well. Whether it is the bubbly Italian-American lovebird Lorna Morello (Yael Stone) – whose dedication to her fiancé Christopher serves as a beacon of hope for viewers by reminding us that love can withstand even the slamming of prison bars – or the mother hen figure that is head cook Galina “Red” Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew), who in the beginning of season one shows us the fiery nature of her Russian spirit by serving Piper a well-deserved lesson on respect, viewers are guaranteed to become entranced by a group of convicts who in the end are no less human than the rest of us are.
Of course, the well of Litchfield’s personalities doesn’t begin to run dry there. There’s the glasses-wearing queen that is Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), Piper’s former lover whose ties with the aforementioned drug cartel repeatedly rekindle and smother her relationship with Piper, which is defined by intense feelings of affection and distaste. There’s Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (Uzo Aduba), whose external insanity contains one of the most self-aware, insightful, and warm characters of the entire show. And let’s not forget Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne), whose experiences with drugs push her to stay clean and loyal in an environment that is anything but. Laverne Cox shines as Sophia Burset, the prison’s transgender hairdresser who used stolen credit cards to finance gender reassignment surgery; through this role, she teaches us a vital lesson of self-acceptance and identity. Dascha Polanco and Matt McGorry portray inmate Daya Diaz and correctional guard John Bennett, respectively, who in the name of love break the strict boundaries of informality by engaging in a covert relationship that only gets stronger when Diaz becomes pregnant.
I could spend hours upon hours discussing the heated melting pot of Litchfield. Yet I also believe that there is one more reason that Orange Is the New Black has become one of the most talked-about shows on television. The characters, while all hilarious and charismatic, also play a powerful role in combating our stereotypes of correctional facilities and of those who reside within them. As seasons one and two unfurl, viewers are invited to look over the barbed wire fences and into a world that is both raw and sympathetic. For every character, life is more about getting away from punishments than getting away from Litchfield. Threats of solitary confinement, abuse, and rape hang over the inmates like vampire bats in a moist cave, and subordination is a necessary survival skill both for the guards and prisoners. But the prisoners at Litchfield are nonviolent women with good intentions. Indeed, an overwhelming majority, if not all, of the prisoners at Litchfield are serving time for nonviolent offenses: staging a political protest, growing marijuana, attempting to pay for stolen goods, and murdering men who harm their children are among the infractions that walk into the doors of the facility. These characters, like many of America’s incarcerated, are not poor of heart but made poor decisions that led them down a slippery slope of fingerprinting and mistrust. We tend to think of prisoners as brutal, aggressive, and uncouth people who, because of their criminal record, can provide no benefits to our society. We fail to realize that this view of prison culture is based not on fact but on the media’s inaccurate depiction of the prison environment. In fact, according to a study conducted by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, over 60% of the United States prison population is made up of individuals who have committed crimes related to two categories of nonviolent offenses: drugs and immigration. The same study found that less than 3% of the same population was made up of individuals who were incarcerated on homicide, aggravated assault, or kidnapping charges.
Orange Is the New Black takes advantage of the above facts by imprinting into our minds an idea that is so basic yet seldom remembered: prisoners are people too. The series captures the rarely discussed reality that, like you and I, incarcerated individuals throughout the nation are mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, friends, and acquaintances. As is the case with Piper’s engagement to her fiancé Larry Bloom, prisoners’ relationships often suffer dramatically due to barriers of communication. But even with these barricades, their relationships do not lose value. Our rights, whether they be to proper healthcare, interaction with those we love, or respect from those around us, should not have to be traded for an orange uniform.
Orange Is the New Black is an engrossing documentation of prison life that will make you laugh and make you cry. It is poignant, elusive, sensual, childish, stimulating to the soul, and detrimental to our preconceived notions of what prisoners are like. So go ahead and subscribe to Netflix, engage in the taboo art of binge-watching. Lock yourself behind the bars of what is destined to become one of television’s greatest successes.
Federal Bureau of Prisons. “BOP Statistics-Inmate Offenses.” Www.bop.com. Federal Bureau of Prisons, 28 June 2014. Web. 3 Aug. 2014. <http://www.bop.gov/about/statistics/statistics_inmate_offenses.jsp>.
Image Credit: “Danielle Brooks / Dascha Polanco / Selenis Leyva / Adrienne C. Moore / Lisa Vinnecour / Neri Tannenbaum / Natasha Lyonne Press Room 2.” Flickr: Creative Commons. Flickr, n.d. Web. 8 Aug. 2014. <https://flic.kr/p/nLhi52>.