It’s the first question I get when people find out I work in a women’s prison: “Is it like Orange is the New Black?” Sometimes the question makes me laugh; sometimes it makes me sigh. The fact is, answering that question is more complicated than it would seem.
Orange is the New Black is the most realistic media portrayal of a women’s prison I have seen. In fact, Orange is the New Black is so realistic I had to stop watching after the first season. After hearing so many stories and witnessing so many tragedies in real life, it was more than I could take to see something so similar on the small screen.
That being said, Orange is the New Black is not an accurate representation of a women’s prison. By which I mean, you will not know what it’s like to be incarcerated or to work in a prison by watching Orange is the New Black. Why, you ask? Because…
Orange is the New Black is a television show
Television shows are meant to entertain. Without drama, shocks, and scandals, a television show won’t sell. Yes, there is plenty of drama in a women’s prison. Most of the stories incarcerated women could tell are shocking. However, if you ask an inmate what makes prison difficult, they would probably say boredom. Most days are spent sitting in a cell, trying to kill time. Life can quickly become an exercise in extreme patience. The key to “doing time” is often being able to deal with too much time on your hands. Yes, fights happen. Yes, abuse by correctional officers happen. Yet even in a 1,700 bed facility like the one I work in, these things are rare.
Orange is the New Black is told from the perspective of privilege
Yes, Piper Kerman went to prison. I applaud her for using her experience to raise awareness about incarcerated women and the serious issues with mass incarceration. However, the reason Piper Kerman has been able to tell her story and reach so many people is because Piper Kerman is privileged. She is white, she is educated, she is wealthy. She is not the “typical” incarcerated woman. The “typical” incarcerated woman is not white; she is not educated; she is not wealthy; and in this country she has very little chance of bettering her life after she has been incarcerated. Thus, Orange is the New Black is the experience of the privileged minority. In an ideal world we would listen to stories told by those belonging to the majority of incarcerated women. In an ideal world we would value their perspective as much as we value Piper’s. I hope this happens soon. In the meantime, the best alternative we have is Orange is the New Black.
The vast majority of pregnant incarcerated women were pregnant before they were incarcerated
I know this point may sound nit-picky, but here at Motherhood Beyond Bars we are all about pregnancy and prison. The volunteers I work with often come in with the misconception that many women’s pregnancies are the result of rape perpetrated by correctional officers. Yes, rape happens in correctional institutions. Sometimes rape happens at the hands of correctional officers, other staff, or even volunteers. Rape is a heinous and deplorable crime in any circumstance, but especially in a situation where the victim has so little freedom. Thankfully, this situation is becoming more and more rare following nation-wide reforms sparked by the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), passed in 2003. During the nearly three years I have spent working in women’s correctional institutions no pregnancy in the state was the result of sexual assault by correctional officers, staff, or volunteers. I sincerely hope this trend continues and that no incarcerated woman or man ever has to experience sexual assault.
So, what’s my point with this blog post? I’m not trying to tell you not to watch Orange is the New Black. It’s a great show! My hope is that everyone who watches will be inspired to learn more about incarcerated women and to fight for prison reform.
If you live in the state of Georgia and are ready to learn more or get involved, don’t hesitate to donate or fill out a volunteer form. We would love to have you join Motherhood Beyond Bars.