Orange is the New Black Sparks Renewed Interest in Eastern State Penitentiary

eastern state orange is the new black crazy eye

Photos courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary. Embarrassingly basic Photoshopping by Josh Middleton.

Recently my roommate and I decided to take a tour of Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP.) Neither of us had ever been, and I assume it was a fairly standard visit. But after the obligatory let’s-make-this-look-scarier-than-it-really-is Instagram shots, I realized we were both thinking about the same thing—our recent binge-watching sessions of the second season of Orange is the New Black (OITNB).

And it wasn’t just our imaginations. The popular Netflix show has even infiltrated the stone walls of ESP, especially after the release of the second season in June.

Megan Straczewski, a tour guide at the old penitentiary, says she fields OITNB questions from visitors several times a week.

“People are the most interested in correlating what they’ve seen on television to what prisoners actually faced here at Eastern State Penitentiary,” Straczewski says. “And so for them, it’s kind of a reference point.”

Reference point indeed. The show has birthed much debate about the effects of making a show about women’s prison into a comedy, but that’s the genius of it in terms of interactions with visitors: It’s generating a conversation. Whether they love it or hate it, the staff now have another way to keep patrons interested.

orange is the new black esp

Photo by Jeff Fusco

Straczewski finds herself bringing the show up in tours to draw visitors in. Viewers who watched a sexually confused Piper lose her shit in solitary, or held back tears as Rosa battled cancer and wished for death will get to imagine similar scenes taking place in ESP, although the inmates were predominately male. And then you’ll see the kitchens, where my honest-to-God first thought was: “Where could I hide drugs in here?”

“I usually mention when Piper gets placed in SHU,” Straczewski says. “I mention that when we go to the punishment cells in Eastern State. Since the contraband kitchen thing seems to get a lot of response, I mention that when we go to the dining halls. I have also been mentioning Rosa getting treated outside of prison, because here at Eastern State, inmates would’ve received treatment on site rather than outside.”

The museum store has sold the OITNB book since before the show aired, but sales have increased by at least 50 percent thanks to the wide net cast by Netflix.

Staff is capitalizing on the OITNB hype with a display dedicated to interacting with Eastern State’s visitors that allows them to voice their own opinions about the show. The “Share Your Thoughts” board is currently host to three different questions amidst pictures of the OITNB cast:

“How are prisons depicted on TV and in movies?”

“Why do you think TV shows and movies about prison have become so popular?”

“How do you think these shows might differ from the reality inside prisons?”

Visitors write their responses on index cards and post them next to the questions, once again sparking a debate about whether the show is making light of a serious issue. (My favorite answer: “I think the statistics show it. The U.S. imprisons a lot of individuals. Now we have TV shows to glorify/glamorize it? Might make youth eager to be rebels to be ‘cool.’ We need better role models instead.” This person may have missed the part about pooping with no stall door. But I digress.)

Annie Anderson, who helps to come up with the themes for the display, has her own take on the show.

“I think it’s humorous, and in that sense, it’s maybe not a traditional prison drama that’s very serious,” Anderson says. “But I also think that the writers and the producers use humor as a way to gain insight into the characters of these women who are incarcerated and into the larger prison system and criminal justice system.”

Opinions on the merits of the show aside, it’s creating a new way to engage and educate Eastern State visitors. Which, if you think about it, sounds like something Piper Chapman would be an advocate for.