Opinionated Me

Orange is the New Black Humanizes and Sheds Light on Incarceration

If you haven’t already watched “Orange is the New Black” on Netflix you have exactly June 12th to catch up and be ready for Season 3. I am anxiously waiting to see what is coming for all the OITNB characters. In case you haven’t heard OITNB is a series based on the life of Piper Kerman, a White 30-something who spends 15 months at a correctional facility in Connecticut for an offense committed in her early 20s. Ms. Kerman wrote a memoir upon her release about her time in prison and now consults on the series.

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You should watch OITNB not only because it is funny and well-written, or because the actresses kick ass, you should watch it because it will challenge and make you think about the complexities and injustices that are part of our criminal justice and prison system.

When we think about prison and people who are in prison, we often think things are black and white. After all, don’t we learn when we are little that bad guys go to prison and good guys don’t? But, as we get older (and hopefully wiser) we know that’s not true. All the bad guys don’t end up in prison and all the cops aren’t always the good guys; and sometimes, good guys end up in prison as well.

We also think that if an individual pays his/her debt to society, they can get a fresh start — that’s not true either. The reality is that a conviction has many consequences on life after prison. There is even a term for this, “the collateral consequences of conviction.” In some cases, the time after incarceration can be a second sentence, especially if you are a person of limited means or a minority.

Really, things are not black or white. Everything is actually some shade of gray.

Orange is the New Black puts a face to stories you can read about in a newspaper or hear about on the local news. It challenges the stereotypes you might have about incarcerated women. It shows you that you might actually have something in common with them– they’re in love, they made one mistake, they were at the wrong place at the wrong time… Haven’t you ever been in love, made a mistake, or been somewhere you shouldn’t have been? Haven’t you ever trusted someone that betrayed you?

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They are mothers, daughters, wives just trying to make it. Maybe they stole something to feed their kids… would you steal something to feed your children, if that was the only way? Of course when asked this question, you may say “Me? Of course not.” But if your kids were starving, maybe you would. The characters are varied because that is what you will find in jail: a little bit of everything (though it is unfortunate that most incarcerated individuals are poor minorities).

Orange is the New Black Sheds Light on the Criminal Justice System

I don’t want to give any of it away if you haven’t already watched season 1 and 2 (If you haven’t– you have start  TONIGHT!) Watching OITNB and the stories that are told (through humor and impossibly funny and sometimes heart wrenching situations) will make you question what you thought you knew about the criminal justice system which we know is in dire need of reform.

Our criminal justice system is in need of a overhaul. You cannot expect people to be productive and law abiding citizens when they return to their communities if there are structural barriers that prevent this from happening.

What kind of barriers? Many!

  • Housing: If you have been convicted of a crime you may have a hard time finding housing. For example, in NYC, you may not live in public housing.
  • Education: You may not be eligible for financial aid.
  • Work: Employers may discriminate if you have had a conviction. What about getting work through the training you receive when you’re in prison? Some jobs that you train for in prison require licenses, which you may not be able to get because you’ve– get this– been to prison. (Oh the irony!)
  • Voting: Some ex-offenders can’t vote, even if they’ve paid their debt to society. (Note: this varies by state. For more information on this you can go here).
  • Public Benefits: Some ex-offenders cannot get access to benefits such as food stamps, which is a problem since there are many ex-offenders who are parents and need to feed their children.

So basically, it doesn’t matter if you’ve “paid your debt” to society. You will forever be marked. Imagine being a woman who is released but cannot find a job, cannot find housing, cannot get assistance to get food for her kids… how is this OK?

Why is recidivism high? Because sometimes the better option of being out on the street (homeless) and jobless and hungry is going back to prison… where at least you have a bed, food (though awful) and you are not alone. You can’t possibly think this is the best alternative, to go back to jail, right? But when you see a character doing exactly that on OITNB (sorry, SPOILER ALERT) you can understand why people end up getting incarcerated again. The alternative is simply not an alternative.

As a society, we dehumanize incarcerated individuals, thinking that they deserve what the get (and out of sight, out of mind, right?)  This is one of the reasons why OITNB is so important- because the statistics are no longer just numbers. The stories are people. The stories have faces. They are women with kids, with awful mothers, with abusive husbands, struggling with drug addiction, homeless, Church-goers, Bible readers, young girls who mixed with the wrong crowd, even college students who  don’t necessarily fill the “incarcerated female” stereotype. This is what OITNB puts on screen. Jenji Kohan does a great job of telling the stories, pushing the boundaries and keeping you entertained, but rest assured, behind the sex and the comedy, there are real issues.

Our society doesn’t value ex-offenders. It doesn’t help them get ahead after incarceration. It puts everything into place to hinder their progress. Sadly, it doesn’t start when an individual goes to prison. In some communities, it starts much earlier than that. Communities where there is poverty and where more money is invested in jails than in schools (and this is happening all over the United States, not only in NY).

NY incarceration vs education

NY State spends approximately $168,000 per inmate per year… Has your jaw dropped? Have you fainted yet? Because for that amount of money you can send a kid to an Ivy League for four years. In contrast NY State only spends $19,000 per student per year on education; and NY State is the state that spends the MOST money per pupil.  Talk about having screwed up priorities. With the privatization of prisons in many parts of the country, the issue seems to be not how can we keep people out if the system, but how can we fill them.

Are you depressed yet? Because this sure is depressing. We are spending THOUSANDS more (literally, this is not an exaggeration) on imprisonment than on education. We are spending 8X MORE on imprisonment in NY State than on educating our youth. And as with everything, the communities most affected are poor communities, which happen to be minority communities. We already know that Black and Latino men represent over 60 percent of the prison population , despite being 30 percent of the general population. According to the ACLU website “Black women represent 30 percent of all incarcerated women in the U.S, although they represent 13 percent of the female population generally. Hispanic women represent 16% of incarcerated women, although they make up only 11% of all women in the U.S. and that among female state prisoners, two-thirds are mothers of a minor child.”

OITNB does an incredible job of humanizing prisoners. You will laugh, you will shed a tear and you might even say “OMG” and “WTF just happened?”

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And this is what we need. We need to humanize the stories of those who are incarcerated and of those who suffer because of the mass incarceration that is happening in our country. Sure, we can read about these issues and read all the (alarming) statistics but there is something about putting these issues on screen that really touches the masses and makes these issues real. This is why we need shows like OITNB because these shows can bring to the forefront issues we need to confront as a society.

So if you haven’t seen OITNB, you have until June 12th to get on it and be ready to binge watch Season 3 when it premiers on June 12.  

Also, I couldn’t write a post about OITNB without giving a huge shoutout to Taylor Schilling, a fellow Fordham grad, and to Seleynis Leyva, Dascha Polanco and Diane Rodriguez for being awesome kick-ass Latinas on the show!

Note: this is not a sponsored post. 

Photo credit 1: Orange is the New Black  Photo by  Lovely bonesxo at Wikia and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License.
Photo credit2 & 3: Photo by  Lukesav1998 at Wikia and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License.
Diana Limongi
welcome! I'm a Latina working mom from Astoria, NY, mom to a trilingual four-year old. I blog about motherhood, Latino issues, women's issues, work/life balance, food, parenting and raising my multilingual and multicultural son!

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