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The Truth Behind Orange Is the New Black

“Orange Is the New Black” (OITNB) is a great TV series. One of the reasons it’s great is that the viewers, whether we know it or not, become infuriated with the atrocities committed in the prison system. Personally, OITNB inspired my passion for learning about the injustices in U.S. prisons and to research what in the show is true, exaggerated, or even missing. One part of OITNB that stood out to me the most is that all characters, prisoners and guards alike, are affected by the prison industrial complex, a term that describes the conflict of interest in using imprisonment as a solution to various economic, social, and political problems. Instead of prisons being used to improve society and help those incarcerated, they are used to fill the pockets of corrupt business executives. The show also addresses a multitude of other issues with the US prison system, including its failure to rehabilitate criminals, its seeming lack of value for human life, and the overwhelming discrimination faced by people of color in the system. Even though the series successfully portrays many failures of prisons, the show occasionally misrepresents the hardships people face. OITNB may have its viewers talking about feminism, LGBTQ+ rights, and so much more, but the series needs some work when it comes to elevating the voices of less privileged women and portraying the abuse they face.

One issue I have with OITNB is that it doesn’t accurately represent incarcerated criminals, statistically speaking. The mock federal prison in OITNB has more human traffickers like Miss Claudette, more murderers like Pennsatucky, and more international drug smugglers like Alex Vause than most federal women’s prisons combined. In reality, only about 1 out of 25 federal female prisoners are incarcerated for violent offenses, while 6 out of 10 are incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses. So there aren't that many dangerous criminals in federal prisons as OITNB and other media portray. Although violence helps create exciting backstories and makes the show a guilty pleasure for many viewers, it leads people to believe that women’s federal prisons are filled with violent criminals. In fact, many women are serving multi-year sentences for carrying a Splenda-sized bag of cocaine or for other minor drug crimes.

Although OITNB has many opportunities to explore the failure of our judicial system in providing defendants with a fair trial, sadly, it doesn’t. Many women in federal prisons, especially low-level drug dealers and prostitutes, serve many more years in jail than the masterminds behind their operations. Most of these women can’t afford private attorneys, and their court-appointed attorneys are so overworked they barely have time to look over case files before appearing in court. Consequently, these women face long prison terms while their bosses walk free or serve much shorter sentences. It may be hard for the show to portray this inequality, however, without it, the representation of sexism is incomplete.

The real women behind this horrific reality are often mothers of minors (over 50%). These children are far more likely to live in poverty and end up in prison themselves. While there are a handful of mothers on the show, OITNB doesn’t accurately portray or recognize the difficulties of their children. The children’s lives are rarely addressed; for example, Daya’s daughter is mentioned only a few times since her birth at the end of season 3. More often, these children’s storylines are completely dropped, like that of Maria’s daughter in the middle of season 4. Sadly, I’m not surprised that OITNB, a show centered around a rich white woman, neglects injustices and difficulties that predominantly affect people of color, their children, and other minorities.

OITNB is based on a memoir written by Piper Kerman, a rich, self-described WASP who was sentenced to fifteen months in federal prison for money laundering and drug trafficking. Although not discussed in the show, it’s clear that Kerman had the opportunity to share her story because she was born into a rich family that supported her despite her predicament. It’s frustrating that the show fully develops the story of Piper Chapman, the main character based on Kerman, but neglects to develop stories of less privileged women who are more oppressed in our society because of their race, socioeconomic status, queer identity, or trans identity. These stories are not told often enough, and by focusing on the story of a well-off white woman, OITNB contributes to marginalized groups’ oppression.

Despite all the issues I have with OITNB, I appreciate that the show portrays the difficulty of life after prison and the likelihood that released prisoners will end up back in prison. Taystee, a previously low-level drug dealer, reoffends within a few weeks of her release because she couldn’t get a job and thus couldn’t provide for herself. Her experience is a perfect example of how the prison system fails to rehabilitate prisoners. She became a drug dealer to support herself and served time for her crime. However, when she tries to start her life over, she realizes that the system has never been on her side. Outside of the world of OITNB, over 67% of all released drug offenders, like Taystee, are rearrested within three years after being released. It’s admirable and important that OITNB doesn’t ignore this problem.

Audre Lorde, a Black intersectional feminist writer, once said: “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” Her words are a constant reminder that feminists must recognize that women face sexism of varying intensity that greatly depends on their privilege. OITNB has a strong, predominantly female cast and exposes issues women face in the justice system, but I can’t call it a truly feminist TV series when the stories of minority women and their children are secondary to the stories of privileged white women. There’s more the writers of the show must do to give the audience a more complete picture of the female prison population in the U.S. and the struggles of marginalized groups within the prison system. 

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1 Comment

Love that Audre Lorde quote! Well done, Maya!

Cast of Orange is the New Black
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Some of the cast of the tv show "Orange is the New Black" at the Peabody Awards.
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How to cite this page

Jodidio, Maya. "The Truth Behind Orange Is the New Black." 15 March 2017. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 24, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/truth-behind-orange-is-new-black>.

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3 hr
Ugh, this sounds like a series of questionable decisions. Thoughts? https://t.co/QLZtpJYSQG