10 Times ‘Orange is the New Black’ Showed Us We Need Prison Reform

by Anna Gibson

Orange is the New Black was released early on Netflix this month for its third season. Beyond being insanely entertaining, OITNB is known for its dynamic storytelling, and direct confrontation of issues that affect the lives of people imprisoned everyday. It’s not often that one of the most marginalized populations in the United States gets their stories told on a major platform. Through the lives of the women at Litchfield, OITNB manages to touch on a multitude of different stories and circumstances that need to be explored. Here are 10 times OITNB directly showcases the need for prison reform.

Warning: There are minor spoilers from seasons 2 and 3 ahead!

1. When They Didn’t Misgender Trans Woman Sophia Burset
Laverne Cox, who’s cast as Sophia Burset, a trans woman in Litchfield, has done an amazing job giving the trans community representation in prison. Her role also brings to light the issue of refusing to acknowledge the sexual identity of trans individuals also known as misgendering. Misgendering shouldn’t just be thought of as refusing to use the proper pronouns when speaking to a trans person. This small act of violence has far-reaching consequences. Choosing to disregard trans people’s identity can often lead to them being placed in cell blocks that aren’t representative of their gender while denying them proper health care and medications for hormone treatment. By showing a transgender woman amongst her peers and providing a safe space for her in the women’s facilities, the plot makes Sophia Burset an example for how prisons should better serve trans men and women. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Cox says that in addition to visibility in the media, “There need to be public policies in place that systematically change the lives and circumstance of transgender folks.”

2. When They Didn’t Provide Mental Health Care
Uzo Aduba’s character Suzanne Warren’s behavior is erratic at best. It’s hard for her to use coping skills to check her anger. In the series, Suzanne’s behavior reveals clear indicators of mental illness. In the first episode she throws pie at one inmate and pees on the floor of another inmate who rejected her romantic advances. Despite this, according to the statistics, it’s likely she won’t receive adequate treatment while incarcerated. Jason Schnittker, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania stated, “Most of these mentally ill inmates are not treated for their conditions in prison, and their numbers are rising.” He added, “Nationally, 700,000 inmates are released every year, which means, according to the National Institutes of Health, that more than 350,000 disordered offenders return untreated to society.”

We see this throughout the series. The audience never sees Suzanne go to counseling or receive medication for her mental illness. The only reference to her ‘coping’ with her illness is introduced in a scene when Suzanne tells Piper that mopping the floor is her only method of dealing with stress. This clearly isn’t enough to help teach Suzanne the behavioral skills necessary to help her learn appropriate behavior in various social contexts, and according to statistics, if this occurs

3. When Litchfield Didn’t Provide Care for a Pregnant Inmate
Inmate Dayanara Diaz and correctional officer Bennett have one of the most compelling storylines in the series. They quickly form an intimate relationship, one that’s been replicated in prisons across the United States. Given their proximity to one another, it’s not uncommon for female inmates to get pregnant, either by correction officers or the inmates significant other while in prison. According to the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, “There are more than 200,000 women in U.S. prisons or jails each year, and roughly 6%, or 12,000, of those women are pregnant at the time they are incarcerated.”

The reality of pregnancy and birth in prison reveals the harsh reality of inadequate medical care. According to Bitch Magazine, shackling—the practice of putting a woman in restraints during childbirth—is an unfortunate reality in too many prisons. According to a study done by the ACLU, “Restraints on a pregnant woman can interfere with the medical staff’s ability to appropriately assist in childbirth or to conduct sudden emergency procedures.” Still, these practices persist. There are also issues of inadequate medical care in prison.

According to Tammy Anderson in her seminal essay, Issues in the Availability of Health Care for Women Prisoners, “Females' complicated reproductive systems introduce other types of health problems that current correctional systems are ill prepared to handle.” This can lead to a lack of feminine products in prison leading to infections, as well as inadequate prenatal care, even to the point of allowing pregnant inmates to continue jobs involving harsh physical labor.

4. When Inmates Used Violence and Manipulation to Control Others
OITNB isn’t short of violence and power struggles between inmates. “Prison moms” such as Red, Vee, and Gloria Mendoza perfectly illustrate just how dangerous prison life can be. Even though each of these women provide a sense of security in Litchfield, their protection also shows how hard it is to keep prisoners under control and keep them from hurting one another. Vee’s relationship with Suzanne in season two codifies this perfectly. By the end of the series Vee uses Suzanne as a weapon for her own ends, causing confusion and heartache for everyone around her in the process. This also mirrors the current situation of prisons across the United States. In South Carolina alone, we see 1,607 inmates have charges lengthened due to assault against one another in 2013. Violence is an epidemic in prison, but OITNB spreads awareness by constantly putting it in the forefront of the series.

5. When Litchfield Paid Ridiculously Low Wages
Prison wages are incredibly low, with inmates making as little as 25 cents per hour. This may cause prisoners to scrape for money wherever they can for commissary to buy items such as socks, toothbrushes, and even sanitary napkins. This lack of resources can be a direct cause of drug smuggling, and selling other illegal items to pay for basic human necessities. In season three, we see women working in a sweatshop that offers them close to 50 cents per hour, just enough to buy items from commissary, but not enough to keep them out of trouble. It should also be noted that prisons sell goods created by inmates for an enormous profit. From this, we can see that prison is—in many ways—just another form of indentured servitude.

6. When Litchfield Provided Programs for Inmates
In the first season of OITNB, we see a number of community programs being instituted by Litchfield supervisors and inmate peers. OITNB mirrors correctional programs implemented In real life, where inmates participate in GED programs and even state sponsored yoga. With federal budget cuts being implemented in prisons across the country, it’s important to have activities in place that provide inmates with a way to both learn and socialize with one another. According to Correctional Education as Crime Control, “One million dollars spent on correctional education prevents about 600 crimes, while that same money invested in incarceration prevents 350 crimes. Correctional education is almost twice as cost-effective as a crime control policy.” Implementing activity and educational programs can lead to savings from the prisoners and provide better ways for prisoners to learn to interact with one another.

7. When Corrections Officers Were Insensitive
As recent news would suggest, being a corrections officer isn’t the most empathic profession. Studies show that being in a position of power around a powerless group of people can cause a normal person to become tyrannical. This can increase tensions in prisons and spark deadly encounters between corrections officers and inmates. In OITNB we see officers treating the inmates as less than human. This is even more true in light of underrepresented groups such as LGBTQIA inmates and inmates of color. One of the best ways to enhance empathy between the two groups is to create a system of cultural training, including hiring staff of color, and creating cross cultural programs that help reduce tension between the both inmates and corrections officers. According to a 1999 study from Corrections Today, “[Training] highlights the fact that programs offering mediation between corrections officers and inmates could go a long way in preventing a number of tension-filled incidents between the two parties.”

8. When Inmates Were Sent to Solitary Confinement
In Litchfield, solitary confinement (also known as the SHU) is known for its terrible treatment of inmates. In real life, inmates rarely get fed, are sometimes tied to the bed in the room and left there for hours. Some inmates have been in solitary for months, a practice that occurs in prisons across the United States. According to Stuart Grassian, a doctor at Harvard Medical School, “Roughly a third of solitary inmates were actively psychotic and/or acutely suicidal.”

9. When They Didn’t Provide Social Reintegration
At the beginning of season three, we find that the inmates are being released early. One of the first things I noticed was that they didn’t have any reentry programs. They have been cut as part of the many changes that have occurred throughout Litchfield in the process of it being privatized. Without social reentry programs in place inmates would be forced to leave prison without any support. This would be a problem, for instance, if the inmate were released onto the street after 10 or 12 years. The world would be a completely different place for them, and the inmate would probably end up back in prison where they feel most comfortable.

10. When Litchfield Started the Privatization Process
When private companies own prisons, the inmates are effectively denigrated to mere cogs in the machine of a much larger entity. Many prisons are now for-profit companies, implementing cutbacks in various programs that may help inmates rehabilitate and re-enter society successfully. As we’ll see in season three, this will lead to broken unions, and greater tension in the prison as the inmates are fed disgusting food, and the outlets for their frustration are being shut down.

OITNB isn’t just idle entertainment. It brings into stark focus numerous issues directly affecting prison inmates. The series is an example of the power of representation, and how spreading awareness can save lives. We all deserve to be seen, even the most marginalized among us. By being able to better empathize with the struggles of the most marginalized among us, we can start to implement positive change in the world around us from the bottom up.

Photo: Netflix

Anna Gibson is a student at Wayne State University who currently majors in Journalism with a minor in Africana Studies. She’s also a Buddhist who seeks to create a safe space for the marginalized to tell their stories. If you would like to get in touch, you can reach her on Twitter @TheRealSankofa or on Facebook under the name Anna Gibson.