OITNB


Last night, we finished watching the entire Orange is the New Black series—if you haven’t seen it, you should. We actually started it when it first came out, but then we didn’t have Netflix for a few years so we just started over from the beginning.

I realize this is television, and entertainment, but the show was very thought-provoking. The casting was spot-on and the acting was fantastic. To me, a good movie, book, or TV show should envelop you in the characters and make them seem real. All that said, I’m not reviewing the show itself, but the issues that were addressed.

Immigration is a hot topic these days. The way it was portrayed in the show may or may not be entirely accurate, but ICE incarceration seemed pretty miserable just in the TV show. Bunks were stacked three high in a large, open room. Zero privacy. Very little to occupy one’s time. Lack of interpreters.

I have no doubt that non-TV facilities are probably worse; at least this place was clean. What bothered me were really two things: first, the attitude of the detainees in general; second, the lack of human rights.

The constant refrain was “But I didn’t DO anything!” Yes, you did. You entered the country illegally and lived here without documentation. That is a crime. Yes, it was heartbreaking that many of these detainees had lived exemplary lives and were now being deported to countries of which they had little knowledge or experience. But there were few who had attempted to remain here legally at any point.

One character was convinced that she was a US citizen. She was in her late 20s and her mother, undocumented as well, had told her that she was born here. She lived her whole life believing this, but was deported to Colombia, a country she’d left at the age of two.

Another one was released from prison only to be sent to an ICE facility. That was a tough one; her boyfriend was waiting for her, with flowers, and didn’t even see her at all. They finally spoke on the phone, and he came to visit her—and was immediately incarcerated, because his green card renewal was delayed through no fault of his own. Also, the ICE agent was a dick—I’m sure some of them are.

The third woman was a young widow with two young boys. She worked, her boys were in school, she was very intelligent and well-spoken; exactly the kind of immigrant the US needs. In the end, she was deported but her children were not because, by accident of birth, they were citizens. This is one thing I believe needs to change. In order to be considered a US citizen, children should have at least one parent who is already a citizen, or, alternatively or maybe additionally, if those children are minors and have only one parent, that parent should be allowed to stay.

This woman received two days’ notice that there was going to be a custody hearing, and the ICE agent informed her that she should have applied to attend that hearing weeks prior. This is unacceptable; the government takes entirely too long to do anything regarding immigration, TV show or not. What really bothered me, though, was when the immigration judge told this woman that her children had “already been placed in a pre-adoptive foster home.” What the hell? Her case hadn’t even been heard yet!

All of these people were victims, but all but the first one were also perpetrators. There are consequences for not obeying the law. You might ask, as well, didn’t the first woman ever have to present a birth certificate for an ID or a license or anything? No, she did not; if one is living a less-than-traditional lifestyle, such as involvement in the black market or cons or drugs, those types of employers don’t usually ask for ID.

Besides immigration, the show also touched on both maximum- and minimum-security prison life. While much of this is fiction, some it probably quite accurate. I can only speak of my own experience in visiting a county jail and what I heard from a few inmates, as well as several articles I’ve read comparing life in fictional Litchfield to that in an actual federal prison.

Some of these characters got a really raw deal, either in initial sentencing or additional time or treatment while incarcerated. Now, if you’re not familiar with OITNB, the main character, Piper, was named by a former girlfriend as part of a drug ring—ten years after she transported a suitcase of money, one time—and was sentenced to some 18 months. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like a very long sentence…but think about prison life, at least the way it was depicted on TV.

For myself, I get up in the morning and have a cup of coffee while scrolling Facebook and reading the news. I get my to-do list together, make my bed, get dressed, feed all the animals, and start my day. I eat what I want, when I want, watch a movie, talk on the phone, hug my husband, take a shower, and stay up as late as I want. Imagine how a long a day in prison would seem to me—or to you, if you had a set time to get up and only a few minutes for a shower at a particular time; if you were served cafeteria food three times a day; if you had to purchase even daily needs from a commissary who may be out of stock; if nearly every personal possession you now have was considered contraband.

Is an 18-month sentence really appropriate for a woman who committed a seemingly minor crime and has, over the next ten years, started a business and gotten engaged and is living her best upper-middle-class, basic white girl life? That’s 540 days of, in this TV prison, working for 11 cents per hour, eating crappy food, being told when to sleep, eat, and shower, no touching visitors—if you have any—making collect calls and hoping someone will accept, no cell phones, no nothing. I’d challenge anyone to attempt to do what the prisoners did for even a day, or a week. Think about how different things are on the outside, even from a prison on TV.

Here’s a better example: one character was arrested for selling what people thought were drugs. A high schooler, one of her classmates, committed suicide because he licked a sticker that he thought was laced with LSD—it was not. She was arrested and sentenced to around three years. That’s over 1000 days for selling stickers. Stickers.

As we progress through the seasons, there’s a prison riot. A character whose best friend was accidentally killed by a guard wants to make a difference, and so she participates in the riot and negotiates with the warden and former warden, a representative of the governor. The head guard was killed in the riot and this woman was convicted of firing the fatal bullet—even though ballistics should have shown that the gun that killed him was not the gun discovered near his body, but one fired by a member of the SWAT team. This is, of course, some kind of bullshit, but it’s stuff that happens all the time. The woman ends up with a life sentence.

Another example of this type of BS is that, at the beginning of the riot, a young woman picks up a gun smuggled in by a douchebag—sorry, a guard—and shoots him in the leg. He’s bleeding pretty badly, but is eventually taken to medical and treated. He’s fine. Another inmate blows air into his IV and the guard suffers a stroke and finally dies. The young woman who shot him is convicted of murder and sentenced to life. Figuring she has nothing to lose, she becomes a gang leader and drug dealer.

It seems that here in fictional Litchfield, autopsies are never conducted…

Sentencing reform aside, and I think if the powers that be ever had to spend any time at all in a prison, this would be moved to the top of their respective lists of “things to fix,” a huge issue is what happens upon release for these women, as well as actual inmates around the country.

When Piper was released, she stayed with her brother and his wife and their new baby. She got a waitressing job. And she went to see her parole officer. I do not know how long her parole was, but it seemed a matter of months. The purpose of parole is to make sure former inmates stay on the straight and narrow, yes?

Just a few highlights: she was not allowed to drink or be around alcohol; she had to pay fees for certain testing; she had to be urine-tested regularly; the PO could show up at her home or work at any time, unannounced; and of course, she had to remain in the state.

Now, I understand and agree with some of these things. But her crime didn’t involve alcohol at all, so where’s the logic there? Why the urine testing? Drugs? Yes, her sentence was drug-related, but involved money more so than actual drugs. I also think that charging fees to someone who is starting from scratch and likely at a low-paying job—ex-cons don’t typically make six figures, or even five—is unfair. As for the PO checking up on her, well, she could at least be discreet, yes, and not broadcast her purpose.

Our previously mentioned inmate riot negotiator had a brilliant idea near the end of the show, and that was to start up a micro-loan program to released inmates to give them a hand up when they re-entered the free world. I was delighted to learn that the Poussey Washington Fund is a real thing, started by the producers of OITNB. A number of non-profits dedicated to helping former inmates are the recipients of money raised through this fund and over $300,000 has been donated since June.

The purpose of prison is punishment for those convicted of crimes; a secondary purpose is deterrence. Presumably, others will see or hear about the punishment and decide to walk the straight and narrow. I think it’s hard to realize what prison is like until one has actually experienced it—which would, of course, fulfill those dual purposes of punishment and deterrence. Sentences probably don’t deter anyone from committing that first crime and receiving their own sentence, and some prefer prison life or at least don’t consider it truly awful.

Yes, I agree with the death penalty, if one commits murder and there is DNA evidence; I also believe that there should be one appeal allowed, with the sentence carried out within five years. At the same time, I believe that low-level crimes should have much shorter sentences, measured in months and not years.

Parole should be much less restrictive and more discreet, and while inmates receive the balance of their commissary money upon release, at cents paid per hour for work, most have around $40 to start up their lives again. I believe that inmates should not have to spend money on basic needs, such as toothpaste or shampoo, while incarcerated or, worse yet, be charged for their stays in some county jails—like in Missouri.

The last thing I want to touch on are the programs that are offered to inmates during incarceration. In the TV show, most of these were shut down because of the almighty budget—which, by the way, wasn’t a huge issue until a private for-profit company took over. Now, there is a third purpose to prison, seldom mentioned and less often available, and that is rehabilitation. If you take someone with little education and low skills and stick them in a prison for a year or two, then release them with $40 and a place to go, what happens?

That person is right back where he started, with a felony conviction that makes it even less likely he’ll be able to get a decent job, or any job at all. Nothing has changed, except he’s lost a year or two. But if he’d been able to obtain his GED, or take college classes, or learn a marketable skill, he’d be in a much better position to avoid returning to prison. Likewise, group therapy and counseling—actual counseling, not that weird stuff that Healey was doing in OTINB—are helpful to learn one’s motivations and to learn about self and self-care and so much more. Many of these inmates have little or no introspection skills because they’ve been putting all their energy into survival.

Shouldn’t the goal of society be to create and maintain productive, law-abiding, healthy individuals? Prison is punishment, and when it’s done, it should be done.

This entry was posted in Op-Ed.

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