Gray Areas: Orange Is the New Black S3 E9 “Where My Dreidel At?” (Netflix)

Orange, Black, or Bleak S3 E9: “Where My Dreidel At?”

As a formerly incarcerated person, I have been engaged in a deep-dive into the Netflix show Orange Is The New Black to help explain some of the things that folks watching the show without a felony background might not catch.

This episode is about bad food (again), strange bedfellows, and entrepreneurial spirit.

In case you are interested, I posted a piece on employment discrimination against women and formerly incarcerated people on the Daily Kos site this morning as well.

If you have not watched OITNB before *Spoiler Alert*

Some Things About Season 3 Episode 9 "Where My Dreidel At?”

OITNB inmates.jpg

OITNB S3 E9 “Where My Dreidel At?” is about:

* Leanne’s backstory. She was an Amish girl who used her pre-baptism period out in the wider world to find drugs and the selling of drugs with some other Amish kids. When she returns for her baptism and embraces the church, the police arrest her (after finding her backpack full of the drugs she hid in a cornfield by magic?). In order to avoid doing prison time, Leanne agrees to entrap some of the other kids selling drugs. It all ends badly as she leaves the Amish community to spare her parents from the backlash from her decision (and somehow, as a result, ended up in prison - probably for drugs).

Leanne tries to take control of the “Norma” group as a way of ensuring that she can’t be expelled. When she decides to expel SoSo, she runs into opposition from Norma. The rapprochement between Leanne and SoSo fails miserably.

* Caputo and Danny fighting about lack of financial support and about the legality of MCC bringing a Rabbi in to certify “true Jews” (Sister Ingalls ends up to be the only “Jew” certified - even though she was a Catholic Nun). All of this is a result of inmates choosing Kosher meals which cost MCC more money than the slop they usually serve in the cafeteria.

Red registers her disgust with having to produce bad food.

Cindy decides to become a real-live Jewish convert after finding out she was not certified as Jewish (after her decision to convert, she says, “Where my Dreidel at?”).

* Sophia’s son Michael beats a kid up (we find out later that he beats the kid up for being “faggy”). Sophia assumes that this must be because of Gloria's son's influence, and tells Gloria that her family will no longer take Benny to Litchfield for visits, but she later finds out that he is acting out his frustration and confusion over his father’s journey. Rather than doing the right thing and apologizing to Gloria, she chooses to say nothing.

* Suzanne dealing with the problems of being a famous writer and starts to develop a closer relationship with one of her most ardent fans.

* Doggett and CO Donuts deepening their disturbing relationship.

* Vause continuing to grow increasingly paranoid about Lolly. By the end of the episode, Vause finds Lolly’s journal detailing all of her movements.

* Piper’s sad, and somewhat out of character, descent into cheating on Vause with Stella. Also, Piper becoming Litchfield's "panty mogul" (her plan to sell panties starts generating serious money).

The Zone of Exception

Danny mentions to Caputo that it turns out that there is some gray area between inmates constitutional rights and the ability of a private prison corporation to abrogate some (or all) of those rights.

When someone goes to jail or prison, some of the rights exist, others are suspended (perhaps never to return), and the net effect seems to mean that you live much of the rest of your life in a kind of constitutional zone of exception.

When you are in prison Michigan, the process through which you can exercise your rights becomes fairly complicated. Before you can petition a court for Due Process, you have to exhaust a fairly lengthy shadow legal process (in Michigan this is called the Grievance process).

So, say you believe that you have an actionable grievance against the Department of Corrections, to get relief for that grievance you have to go through a four (sometimes) five-stage process. Each of these stages requires a great deal of writing (often with legal requirements) and can take months to exhaust (sometimes years).

Just so you understand entirely, I was only in prison for three years but during that time I never saw even one complaint resolved during the time I was incarcerated. In every single situation and at every possible opportunity, the MDOC denies all grievances (in hopes, I suspect, that nobody will wait out the process to get to an actual court of law.

I myself had an ongoing grievance against the MDOC related to my parole denial that lasted the entire length of my incarceration. In response to one stage of my grievance, the MDOC grievance coordinator spent so little time thinking about the response that they mistakenly sent me the internal department guidance memo about the process for correctly responding to and denying grievances.   

Of course, the response I received did not follow those guidelines (which obviously became an argument in my next stage grievance).

Anyway, it is a pretty complex and byzantine process and a large percentage of inmates are not exactly legal experts (which doesn’t mean that they do not have legitimate grievances as much as that they don’t know how to correctly format those grievances and be patient enough to reach a court of law.

Many inmates turn to “jailhouse lawyers” many of whom are extremely hard working and have taught themselves the law through painstaking trips to the prison law library. Unfortunately, there are also some unscrupulous lawyers too, but it is fairly easy to find out who might really be able to help you.

Sadly, when ‘jailhouse lawyers’ get particularly good, Departments of Correction start retaliating against them by constantly moving them around (from block to block and from facility to facility) so that it becomes significantly harder for them to meet with their clients or get the information they need to continue the pursuit of cases.

The legal process once a prisoner is released is pretty terrifying too. For most formerly incarcerated people coming out of prison they find themselves broke, saddled with massive ‘criminal justice debt,’ and subject to two to five years of parole and/or probation (parole is usually carried out by the State while probation is carried out by a county). During your time on parole and probation, you are technically still considered an inmate (in Michigan you are called a ‘level zero prisoner’) and still live entirely in legal limbo.

In other words, for the first few years after release, your legal rights remain extremely limited and very hard to exercise. The truth of the matter is that you can be returned to prison for virtually any reason and your parole and/or probation officer has wide legal latitude to constrain all elements of your life.

For instance, when I got out, I was allowed outside of my house for only five hours a day and was not allowed to leave my house at all on weekends. I know some formerly incarcerated parolees who can only leave the house if they are working, applying for a job, or after they have turned in a long and detailed plan.

In some ways, prison is preferable to parole and probation (you generally get more outside time).

After you are done with parole and probation, you still can find yourself with greatly limited political and legal options. When I was young, it was a common feeling that people paid their debt society after they had served their sentences. Today, it is common to find yourself without the right to vote, legally discriminated against in housing and employment, and facing crippling levels of criminal justice debt.

This is one of the main reasons that I think that the fight for criminal justice reform is really a fight for RESTORATION of full citizenship rights.

I believe in the old adage, “No Taxation Without Representation.”

In my opinion, ALL formerly incarcerated people should have their rights fully restored upon completing parole and probation.

I also feel like prisons, which are engines of recidivism and failure, should be forced to become more transparent. Nothing good ever happens behind the wall of secrecy.

A Few Other Peeves

Some folks don’t like that I write this series and lots of formerly incarcerated folks HATE OITNB.

My feeling is that it tries to treat the prisoners as human beings and that it constantly sends the message that people are more than their crimes.

I also like that while it is an imperfect vessel, the show does cover most of the salient criminal justice reform issues that I would like to discuss here, so it works for me.

At the same time, I am very aware that I am not a woman and that the experience of incarceration for women is very different than the experience of incarceration is for men. I try to remain open to all criticisms that are based on my own ignorance of the gendered differences between the segregated systems.

I wanted to mention here that I am uncomfortable with the Stella storyline. It seems incredibly forced to me and totally outside of Piper’s character arc to get frustrated with Alex and almost immediately start cheating. It feels exploitative.

Most importantly, I want to say how uncomfortable the Doggett and Donuts storyline makes me. Not because people don’t do terrible things to each other or that truth should be covered up. It bothers me because it feels exploitative. What good comes from having Doggett forced to act like a dog or a duck?

Prison is a deeply dehumanizing experience, I don’t mind the show going to dark places when it serves a purpose that might be illuminating or lead to meaningful reform. I do not like, at all, when the show uses degrading or titillating prisoner experiences just to generate viewer interest.

I will probably not say too much more about the Doggett and Donuts story-line, I find it offensive.

Unlocking The Gates

OITNB Riot Pic.jpg

I am a member of a Criminal Justice Reform organization called Nation Outside (The Voice of the Formerly Incarcerated) but I am not speaking for Nation Outside in any official capacity.

If you are interested in criminal justice reform or are formerly incarcerated yourself, please consider joining the fight (if you are a Michigan resident - you can sign up by clicking on the hyperlink above).

Leave a comment, let people know.  Or, if you have questions, I respond to 100% of my comments!