Screenshot 2014-06-11 06.37.58I’ve just finished viewing the recently-released new season of Orange is the New Black, which I had awaited with much anticipation since reading Piper Kerman’s book and the first season. It was everything I hoped for and more, and the storylines were engaging and fantastic. And, even taking into account what we all already know–that TV series aim to entertain and have to compete in the ratings arena–this season’s plotlines highlight some important prison issues that the public may not be aware of and offers an intelligent, critical look at them.

Let the spoilers begin!

This season’s episodes are drawing attention to two populations of inmates that have previously been in the dark to the public: the old and the infirm. It’s easy for the public to imagine the typical prisoner as a young black male, and the statistics on prison population confirm the overrepresentation of such inmates, but that ignores the growing aging population in prison and the special problems they pose. As life-course criminology shows, people tend to age out of street crime as a natural transition to adulthood, and lengthy incarceration beyond those periods, particularly for nonviolent, nonsexual offenses, therefore raises serious questions.

In Cheap on Crime, I talk about the rise in attention of correctional authorities to the old and the infirm, modifying Feeley and Simon’s risk-based actuarial justice to a cost/risk equation. That is, recession-era politics look not only at the risk an individual poses, but also at the cost of his or her incarceration. Orange is the New Black raises these hard questions through the stories of older and infirm inmates these season, focusing on two in particular: Sister Jane Ingalls, an excommunicated, politically active nun incarcerated for chaining herself in place at a nuclear weapons base during a political protest, and Rosa Cisneros, a former professional bank robber now undergoing chemotherapy for an aggressive cancer.

Sister Ingalls, friends with a group of older inmates, witnesses the painful “compassionate release” of a fellow inmate with Alzheimer’s, shocked at the fact that no plans are made to care for the inmate after dumping her on the street. This sad and shocking fact reflects the weakness of many similar “compassionate release” programs designed to save money on care of the elderly without thinking about support following their release. Horrified by the prison authorities’ indifference to the plight of an old, frail, sick inmate, Sister Ingalls embarks on a hunger strike. For a while, she sits on the sidelines of a group of inmates organizing a hunger strike for various issues, and eventually, she remains the lone hunger striker after other inmates are placated with some minor concessions.

Notably, some of the serious issues raised in the context of the hunger strike mirror events from the recent Pelican Bay hunger strike. One of the demands of the strikers in the series was to clarify the administrative policies behind sending inmates to the SHU. Of course, in Orange is the New Black, we only see the SHU being used as a punitive, disciplinary mechanism, rather than as a vague, indefinite status for suspected gang members, as is the case in Pelican Bay, Corcoran, and elsewhere. Nonetheless, we get to see the impact of a month in the SHU on two inmates: Chapman and Watson, both of whom are deeply traumatized by their stay in solitary confinement. The other important issue raised in the series is force feeding of Sister Ingalls – shown as an unpleasant process through IV and raising problematic ethical questions. As some readers may recall, Judge Henderson’s order to allow force feeding of inmates effectively ended the Pelican Bay strike, and more or less around the same time the world was shocked by rapper Mos Def’s demo of force feeding in Guantanamo.


Rosa Cisneros’ chemotherapy treatments also confront the viewers with the liminal place between inmate and patient. The series pays careful attention to Rosa’s transportation in and from prison; to her shackling and unshackling moments at the doctor’s office; and to a teenaged fellow cancer patient’s confusion about her prison uniform, thinking it’s merely “old lady chemo clothes.” Rosa bonds with the teenager through stories of her history as a professional bank robber, which we see in flashback, reminding us that a bald, ill woman was once a vibrant, energetic adolescent involved in daring criminal enterprises. The last scene of the season sees Rosa transform once more, as she “goes with a bang” into her younger, energetic self, daring and transgressing one more time. But before that glorious, powerful end, we see a scene far less dramatic but equally moving: Rosa sits in Healy’s office, where she receives the news that the Department of Corrections will not fund surgery for her, which essentially dooms her to an ineffective chemo course and to an early grave. She receives these news, as well as the news of having three more weeks to leave, in serenity and acceptance. “Talk to me,” she says to the doctor, “like you would talk to someone you like.”

Last but not least, in one of the comical scenes, the inmates are treated to a “mock job fair”, which starts with a jovial dress-up and fashion show, and continues with mock interviews with, of all people, the representative of Philip Morris (“because who else would employ former inmates?”)

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Everything about this bullshit so-called rehabilitation program screams the need for useful, realistic, evidence-based vocational training. The inmates are dressing up and interviewing for positions they have no hopes of receiving after their release. The program becomes mere entertainment, a spectacle, a mockery of reality-show-type contests, and does not provide any useful skills for the outside world. When Taystee, the only inmate who seems to take the job fair seriously, asks the Assistant Warden whether the “winner” of the job interview will actually receive a real job, she is mocked and offered a $10 addition to her commissary funds. The warden’s mockery implies that the rehabilitative programming is never seriously meant to rehabilitate, which reflects much of the unsuccessful prison programming that led Robert Martinson to conclude that “nothing works.”

As an aside, the recession may have changed this by prompting states to reduce their recidivism rates to save money. I’ve just received word that the Council on State Governments’ Justice Center will be releasing a report tomorrow, timed to an event on Capitol Hill, showing 6%-18% decline in recidivism rates in eight states, due to conscious efforts to invest in effective rehabilitation and reentry programming. The humorous scene in Orange is the New Black is a reminder of how time served can be effectively used, or completely wasted, depending on the thoughtfulness and genuine motivation of correctional authorities.

What are your favorite moments, characters, and issues, from Season 2?

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