Orange is the New Black: Orange, Black, or Just Bleak? OPS Series Intro (Netflix)
Introducing "Orange, Black, or Just Bleak": My New Deep-Dive into the Netflix Series Orange is the New Black
Orange is the New Black (Netflix), often referred to as OITNB, is a show that tells the stories of a specific fictional group of women's prisoners in a women's prison. The series is based on the semi-autobiographical book of the same name by Piper Kerman (who was herself formerly incarcerated).
I am a formerly incarcerated person and an active member of a Criminal Justice Reform organization called Nation Outside (The Voice of the Formerly Incarcerated). I am also an advocate for prisoners and people like myself who are formerly incarcerated (to be clear, I am not writing in my capacity as a member of Nation Outside).
Anyway, I hate jail and prison television (Prison Porn).
I hate courtroom television (Legal Porn) and police procedural television (Law and Order Porn).
Anyone who has been through the legal system understands that the vast majority of prison, courtroom, and police procedural television is propaganda at its best and a celebration of the brutal cruelty of the system at its worst.
The vast majority of it is used to soothe the moral conscience of the populace in the face of the unprecedented expansion of the carceral state that has been accomplished over the last four decades (under both Republican and Democratic administrations).
In no way am I suggesting that there are easy answers or that incarceration should not exist, I am suggesting that it is immoral to consume real human failure, pain, and sorrow as a means of entertainment.
So, given my opposition to Prison Porn, why in the world have I decided to blog about Orange is the New Black?
The OITNV Point Of View
OITNB is one of the more accurate and less exploitative shows about prison or jail on television (not a very high bar).
It starts from a surprising place, the show's amazing opening credits sequence (a tour de force performance of the radical notion that prisoners are human beings and that they should always be treated as such).
This opening sequence forces you to confront the faces of inmates.
We are left, after seeing the credit sequence, in debt to the what the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas called the "radical alterity" of the face. By presenting nothing but the "person as face." you are forced either to turn away or lock eyes with and see humanity and personality in each face you confront.
And what do those faces say to me?
I remember being one of those faces (although I was obviously not in a women's facility, I was in a series of men's facilities). What my face probably screamed was pretty much what the women in the opening credit's faces scream to me:
"You Don't Know Me."
This sequence from the Showtime program Shameless best explains how entering a jail or prison (getting processed) really goes and this process you are about to see is repeated over and over again throughout imprisonment (on any visit, on work assignments, when suspected by officers of contraband etc.).
Kudos to Emmy Rossum for that incredible performance. I used her performance because you are forced to confront her humanity throughout the scene, her performance comes across to me as maintaining her dignity in the face of immense dehumanization and not as "prison porn."
While many of us did not "break down" like this when we were first processed (for fear of being treated like "Fat Fatass" in Shawshank Redemption) I suspect we all felt some variety of everything that shows on her face during that incredible scene.
Anyway, in entering jail or prison, you are purposefully stripped of all dignity and reduced to only the object of control and suspicion. A rogue vessel incapable of dignity, a mad sub-human being to control and tame (and sometimes abuse, insult, and degrade).
I remember having my plea bargain thrown out by the judge and being taken immediately to a cell inside the prison itself. I remember being bussed to the jail (where I stayed for about a month before being taken to prison) where I was searched in a similar manner to what you see in that clip.
After jail was Prison Quarantine, a facility where they spend another month evaluating what security level you should be placed at and what programming you will need before being eligible for parole.
When I first entered "Quarantine" seemingly 100's of us were "processed" again physically only this time inspected more like cattle in a pen before a show.
Later I was repeatedly groped by a prison doctor during my "physical" as he repeatedly told me that I was "not going to do well in prison."
When you are in quarantine, the central prison processing facility, in order to get you "prepared" for prison life you are treated like prisoners at the high-level detention facilities. Approximately 20 hours a day in a cell, exercise on the yard every other day for around an hour and treated to a constant stream of abuse by the guards 24/7.
On my last night in quarantine, a guard came to my cell to ensure that my duffle was correctly sealed, and he said that he saw that I "read lots of books" and he told me that I shouldn't be worried, even if people might violently extort me to make me get books for the other prisoners.
This was a pretty typical guard-prisoner interaction at Quarantine.
I remember another time, on the prison yard walking with another inmate who had been convicted of a Romeo and Juliet crime (a sex crime involving two consenting sexual partners who are not far apart in age but one is legal and the other is underaged) and hearing the guards call out what he had been convicted of to all the other prisoners on the yard (sex crimes make you a target for abuse in most prisons).
After quarantine, when we were moved from facility to facility (a process that happens on a semi-regular basis to almost all inmates in Michigan), we were all driven to a central transportation hub where we were literally kept in a series of dog pens, 20 to 30 in a pen shackled, with only Tupperware jugs standing in for a toilet and one bench for sitting.
Depending on when (or if) your transport arrived, you could stand (or sit) like human dogs in a kennel for hours. Only you are really treated worse than dogs because your hands and feet are shackled at the same time.
Anyway., the process of "becoming" incarcerated attempts to reduce you to ONLY to the worst moment of your entire life. To define you literally as only being capable of the worst things you have ever done.
The look on every face in that opening sequence screams in opposition to that idea.
You don't know us.
And that also fully explains why I hate "prison porn."
Why is Orange the New Black?
"Prison Porn" is the framing of filmed sequences, like the one above, in order to entertain and titillate viewers. The use of prisoners bodies and their pain as a commodity sold for mass consumption and enjoyment.
Reducing prisoners to only objects for the enjoyment of the audience smooths the moral conscience of the viewer and makes them begin to think it is okay to treat them, as a class, poorly. or even with cruelty.
By reducing the guilty to a sub-human status (a status where, as the 13th Amendment suggests, the application of slavery is allowed) it allows so-called "normal" citizens to even start to root for brutality (One only needs to have seen one episode of the old Nancy Grace program to understand how this change from compassionate citizen to cruelty plays out).
To most incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, the pain and punishment of prison start when the doors click shut. For a very real segment of the US population, the fun begins when they get to watch those doors click shut.
Our television landscape is littered with "Prison Porn"
Lots of people love to watch privileged people play at inmate tourism for 40 days (or whatever the hell that atrocity if a show is called).
Lots of people love to watch docu-dramas that follow prisoners around on their journeys through America's toughest prisons.
Lots of people love to watch docu-dramas about kids thrown in rooms filled with predatory inmates to be "scared straight."
There is so much prison porn in America, it is no wonder that one out of every four people incarcerated on planet earth is incarcerated in the "Land of the Free and Home of the Brave."
This is what, I believe is meant by the title "Orange is the New Black."
Prison has become a form of entertainment and prisoners a commodity like the latest fashion trend, something to watch, to enjoy, and exploit.
Individual prisoners have become like clothing in a fashion show or a new toy, something to be consumed and discussed. Dehumanized by the system, reduced to bare life, and produced for mass delivery on television and in movies to a hungry and "adoring" market full of hungry cannibal ghouls.
OINTB is one of the first shows, that I have ever seen, to put the premise that prisoners are human beings right in your face from the very beginning. One of the first shows to problematize the consumption of them as products only for mass entertainment. One of the first shows to ask you to care about them as people.
One of the first shows to suggest that behind "every sentence" lies a story.
Those faces are angry and defiant. Angry from being treated like animals and defiant because each prisoner knows, deep down, that they are a human being (no matter what the system does to them).
Is the show perfect? No.
Does it occasional exploit fictional prisoners and use their bodies to titillate the audience? Yes.
But it is so consistently far ahead of the competition in according dignity to prisoner's that I will try to swallow the moments that I hate.
So Why Am I Writing About OITNB?
As mentioned above, it started by treating prisoners with respect and according them dignity.
It is a show that refused to engage in simple stereotyping (maybe it is a little heavy on the women prisoner sex stereotypes).
I also believe it could be the perfect springboard to discuss many of the real issues in America's prisons and jails and might be a perfect vehicle for communicating the difference between the neverending and corporate sponsored orgy of televised Criminal Justice System propaganda (ALEC I am talking about you).
* I can't sit quiet about prison issues on this blog anymore. Just last week, our new Attorney General made a speech supporting the expansion of Private Prisons and a doubling-down on the War On Drugs (the same War on Drugs primarily responsible for much of the mass incarceration crisis). It is time for people to speak truth to power. It is time to stand up.
Many people will suggest that my point is that people don't need incarceration or deserve punishment but that is absolutely not my point. I, for instance, 100% accept that what I did was wrong and that I deserved punishment. What I will never accept is that makes me, or any of my millions of sisters and brothers in incarceration, less than a human being.
My plan is to start with Season One. I am not planning to write about every single episode, but I will try to cover the highlights and lowlights of the first four seasons. I 100% plan to blog the fifth season in its entirety.
Start looking out for new posts every week.