Count me among the many who happily binge-watch Netflix’s most successful series, Orange Is The New Black. It has what most great shows have: nuanced characters, great dialogue and an interesting story arc with just enough ridiculousness sprinkled in to make the mundanity of everyday life seem entertaining.
Except, what Orange unpacks is a little more than mundane ordinary life. The show, which centers on the lives of the female inmates of the fictional Litchfield Correctional Facility, makes jail the centerpiece of its LOLs and hijinks, then snaps the audience back into the grittier realities for a pathos-driven push-and-pull to humanize the way we think about the incarcerated.
It’s effective, for sure, so much as that there’s been a #HumanityIsTheNewBlack social media campaign to decry the disgusting conditions of the Suffolk County Jail in Riverhead, N.Y., the facility that’s used to film the scenes.
Piper Kerman, the real-life inspiration for the show’s protagonist, Piper Chapman, (and upon whose memoir the entire series is based) has herself been inspired by her own experiences to work in prison reform circles. And with a show like Orange and its likable characters, its easy to get caught up in wanting to make things better … for Poussey? For Tastee? For Daya? For Red? Too bad our compassions can’t be roused by real prisoners.
The other side to this, of course, is a general desensitization to the prison industrial complex. The show, like others centered in jail houses (Locked Up, Oz, or Scared Straight, for example) operates from a perspective of privileged voyeurism that promises to deliver us based-on-a-true-story grit and sordidness from the safety and distance of our sofas.
Despite the series’ depictions of girl-on-girl meant to entertain and titillate, and the cunning tongue-in-cheek nods to sexual misconduct by prison guards (which bob and weave around the ideas of power and consent, leaving a mess in its wake), the numbers say about 49 percent of the sexual victimization incidents reported in 2011 involved sexual misconduct from prison staff members; the other 51 percent involved inmates assaulting fellow inmates.
According to The Sentencing Project, a research and reform advocacy group, “The number of women in prison, a third of whom are incarcerated for drug offenses, is increasing at nearly double the rate for men. These women often have significant histories of physical and sexual abuse, high rates of HIV infection, and substance abuse.” And with women’s prison population on the rise, this has a tremendous and lasting effect on the families they leave behind — and not just Chapman’s affable and plucky fiancé. Children of incarcerated women are shown to be among the most at-risk population in the United States, according to a study by Columbia University.
There are always morality questions posed when a writer decides to tell someone else’s story, creative license be damned. Certainly the success of Orange Is The New Black can be credited to Kerman and Jenji Kohan’s ability to make Chapman’s point of view the vehicle that informs the general narrative, alongside a neutral narrative that allows for flashbacks of life before lockup.
Kerman’s story is certainly about her personal journey while in federal custody, but as I happily devour episode after episode of the show, I often wonder about the real-life women represented in the characters she’s portrayed. How accurate are their depictions? How much of their depictions are informed by Kerman’s own biases? And how much exploitation is required to make a story inspired by true events?
Only the writers know for sure. And while I may question all of these things, I also just finished watching season two — a willful accomplice to the aforementioned crime. Guilty as charged.
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