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On July 11, Netflix debuted the entire first season of “Orange Is The New Black,” a series about an upper-crust Connecticut woman who finds herself spending 15 months behind bars are the Litchfield, NY Federal Women’s Correctional Institution.
The series is a groundbreaking look at prison that hints at the corruption at all levels of the United States’ justice and prison systems by focusing on the human results of bad policies by personalizing the stories of the most unsavory members of society and drawing the viewer into a world which could easily be their own too.
The first episode begins with Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a blonde woman in her early 30s who has just gotten engaged to her boyfriend Larry Bloom (Jason Biggs) getting ready to surrender to serve a fifteen-month sentence for a petty drug crime she had committed ten years prior while she was young and experimental.
She is reserved yet terrified, and being college-educated and trusting the system does her research to keep herself safe while behind bars. All of the illusions of security she mentally built up are shattered in just her first terrifying day of prison.
Although the show is ultimately a dramatic comedy; it is hard to watch, because I kept imagining that if I ever landed in jail I would be a lot like Piper. She is green, optimistic and determined to spend the year working out and bettering herself mentally; not fending for her life, safety and sanity on a day-to-day basis.
By juxtaposing an upper-crust white woman to the average prison inmate, the experience is engrossing and surreal, and draws all viewers into the reality of our corrupt prison system.
The show was based on the book of the same title by Piper Kerman, who’s real life experience served for the inspiration. The series was brought to life by Jenji Kohan, the created and writer of Showtime’s hit series Weeds.
The comparison between Weed’s Nancy Botwin and Orange’s Piper Chapman are easily drawn—they are both exactly the women who you would never expect to be touched by Drug War America, but who’s characters are ultimately forged by the realities of it through their immersion to racism, injustice, poverty and basic human dignity.
During Piper’s first “meal” (it becomes clear the food is barely edible, she is immediately warned not to eat the moldy pudding that was inherited by the prison from Operation Desert Storm in the early 90s) she meets “Yoga Jones”, the prison’s tokin’ hippie inmate and yoga instructor who tells her of Buddhist monks, who spend countless hours creating beautiful sand mandalas, just to immediately destroy them. She concludes the lesson by telling Piper to look at her prison experience in the same way, an intricate work that will take her her entire sentence that she must destroy the day she leaves.
As the series progresses, all of the characters’ current situations and behaviors are explained through a series of flashbacks that tell the tails of how they ended up at Litchfield. It’s striking to realize how few of the “crimes” committed were actual crimes, and how many of the crimes were so relatable. What is more terrifying is how the characters mutated from who they were in those flashbacks to who they became behind bars.
Because, as Orange shows, prison is a horrifying experience that never ends, accented here and there by small moments of manufactured joy the prisoners try to bestow on themselves and others. These are women who have been marginalized and abused their whole lives, and often find comfort in the structure and security of living in the hell that is prison.
Watching the story lines unfold, I couldn’t help but think of Primo Levi’s Holocaust Memoir Survival in Auschwitz. Levi was an Italian Jew who ultimately survived the Holocaust from inside Auschwitz’s walls and penned the memoir, ultimately taking his own life forty years later, still haunted by the past.
Levi’s description of the prison camp was unique in that he didn’t focus so much on the day-to-day life in the camp as much as he did the psychological degradation of the inmates and the tactics used by the Nazi’s to dehumanize them to the point of turning them against one another, sometimes violently, for the most basic of survival needs. By making the inmates feel they were less than human an aggressive survival of the fittest mentality broke them down, made them primal and stripped them of all civility.
Orange depicts the prison system for what it is, a human-fueled profit complex only allowed to subsist through psychological warfare—pitting free people against criminals, guards against the inmates, the inmates against each other.
What is so striking about Orange is how the women in the prison constantly grasp in all directions to maintain their dignity, their human pride, but in the end are almost always crushed. It’s a reminder that so many human behaviors are criminalized in America in the name of profiteering, and despite who you are and where you come from, you too could end up as fuel for the prison system.
Even more of a reason to keep fighting.
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