Orange is the New Black: Orange Black or Bleak: S1 E1 “I Wasn't Ready” (Netflix)

Orange, Black, or Bleak (Here We Go!)

Okay, if you missed my intro to my Orange Is The New Black series...I have decided, as a formerly incarcerated person, to do a deep-dive into the series in order to expose many of the things people might not really understand from television shows.

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 a formerly incarcerated person or a family member or friend, join the fight.

I chose OITNB because it is the least "Prison Porn" show out of all the never-ending cascade of shows on television about prison, jail, and the criminal justice system. But, also because like the original protagonist, I entered prison for the first time as a relatively privileged, adult, white person.

I believe it is really important to counter the never-ending drumbeat of bad ideas like "tough on crime," "prison without rehabilitation," and private prisons. My organizing principle is that whatever prisoners do, they are still human beings.

This does not mean I think all prisoners should be released, it means that everyone should be treated as a human being.

I am not going to do full recaps of the first four seasons but I am going to try to cover the highlights. Once Season 5 starts, I plan to do full recaps again. Also, in an odd coincidence, I just found out Piper Kerman was in Grand Rapids Michigan today talking about Criminal Justice Reform.

If you have not watched OITNB before *Spoiler Alert*

Five Things About OITNB S3 E1 "I Wasn't Ready"

Okay, for those of you starting OITNB for the first time, the basic premise is that Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a relatively successful adult white woman from a well-to-do family, is going to prison for helping her ex-girlfriend Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) smuggle drugs in Belgium over ten years ago (which I guess is literally what happened to the real Piper). 

Why so long? It turns out that when Alex finally got arrested, she flipped on Piper and offered her up to get a lighter sentence (we also find out in episode one that the Statute of Limitations on Piper's charges were 12 years).

So, this episode was (mostly) about how Piper went to prison and about her entry into prison. Like I said, I am not doing full recaps of the first four seasons, but I am going to try to explain or point out things that I find important to discuss as a formerly incarcerated person.

The title of the episode is "I Wasn't Ready"

I guess my response is that no first-time prisoner is ever "ready" for incarceration.

1. "Prison Not Jail"

Piper makes a really important distinction at the beginning of the episode when her friend Polly Harper (Maria Dizzia) mistakenly suggests that Piper is missing her baby shower to go to jail. Piper clarifies that she is going to "Prison" not "Jail."

Most likely, Piper spent some time in Jail when she was first arrested before someone bailed her out. Generally, you get arrested, go to jail and either stay in jail until your trial or sentencing. If you are sentenced to one year or under, you will likely spend that time in jail and if you are sentenced to over one year, you will likely spend the bulk of your remaining time in prison.

Jails are generally run at the county level and prisons are either State or Federal.

One other confusing element, often you are sent to jail until a spot is open for you in prison (this was not the case for Piper).

So, if you are in jail you are either awaiting a trial, awaiting sentencing on a plea, serving up to a year-long sentence, or waiting to be shipped to prison.

Jails are usually more brutal than prisons (although both can be very brutal). Jails usually offer less space for more inmates, less time out of your cell and block, and don't provide exercise yards.

The food is almost always inedible (more on that in a second) and the "fees" you are charged for virtually everything you do are much higher (commissary, phone calls etc.).

With the caveats that I was not in a Federal prison or a Woman's prison, there were a few other little clarifications I wanted to make about some of the details that seemed slightly off to me.

Piper asks the inmate Lorna Morello (Yael Stone) if Lorna is allowed to drive the van around the inside of the prison complex. Lorna responds, "We do everything around here." 

In the prisons and jails that I was in, you were never put in a vehicle without an officer and without being cuffed (usually hand and foot). The reasons for this, as much as I hated it, seemed pretty obvious (if you are in a car or van you can make a run for it).

There is also a scene where Piper asks Assistant Warden Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow) to use the phone.

In the place where I was incarcerated, this would never have happened in a million years. In addition, you have the option to call "collect" (at exorbitant cost) from jail and prison phones (so Piper could have called even if her money had not been deposited in her commissary account either way).

Last but not least, the scene where the women have to line up in their cells for "count-time" is pretty accurate. Every facility I was in had counts throughout the day. The lower the security level of the facility and the more freedom you have at the facility, the higher the number of counts.

Oh, and the part about sleeping on the top of your bedding is also accurate.  

One other little insider thing, in jail, you often don't get pillows. Takes a bit to figure out how to adjust to sleeping without a pillow for the first time in your life.

2. "No Visitors Today"

When Piper and her fiance Larry Bloom (Jason Biggs) drive up to the prison for her to surrender herself they pass by a guard who says "No Visitors Today."

While this was not a big part fo the plot, I think they mentioned it for a reason.

Visits are really important when you are in prison but they are a really contentious and constantly renegotiated bargain between inmates, the families and friends of inmates, and prison administrations. 

Why are they important? Prisoners connection back to the "real world" is where "hope" lives. If safety is your preferred metric, studies show that visits reduce recidivism. But, perhaps even more importantly, many children of prisoners only know their parents through visitations. Many families only get to see their incarcerated loved ones during visits.

Sadly, when budget cuts come down usually the first thing cut is visiting hours. Visiting hours are rarely available in the evenings when it would be likely for most people to be able to visit without having to take a day off of work. 

And even more problematic, at least in Michigan, they move prisoners around a lot to prisons all over the state that are rarely near their friends and families.

Many of the people who visited me in prison had to take a day off from work, drive two hours to and from the prison, and be willing to be searched.

Given the constraints, I was always humbled to have the visits that I got.

Just last week, there was a nationwide event called the "Day of Empathy" designed to increase empathy for prisoners and to allow the formerly incarcerated to tell their stories to legislators. Nation Outside was a co-sponsor in Michigan and I personally talked to three legislators. 

One of the ten issues on our agenda was creating a Family Advisory Council to help guide Department of Corrections decision-making on issues like:

* The incredibly high costs of phone calls and emails (in Michigan they are moving to a new carrier with even higher rates).  Oh, and in case you missed it, the Trump Administration is likely going to roll back FCC protections in this are as well. 

*  Video-Conferencing ONLY visits. This is another new trend which has become popular because it both reduces supervision costs and also allows another opportunity for price gouging the most vulnerable and beaten down families on earth (prisoners families bear the brunt of most of these costs).

Obviously, DOC's will argue that they also reduce contraband. But I will bet that when studies of Video-Conferencing only facilities come out, just as much contraband will get into jails and prisons. I will expound on this in later episodes.

* Moving inmates far away from families and friends. As I mentioned before, this is done all the time in Michigan (and happens in many other states as well). I was in prison for just under three years and was moved three times to different areas of the state (Detroit, St. Louis, Jackson). Again, this is another massive cost to the families of the incarcerated and frequently reduces their ability to make visits.

There are some other concerns, but you get the idea.

3. What Is A "PSI?"

During Piper's meeting with counselor Sam Healy (Michael Harney), she is informed that any person on her PSI is cleared for visitation.

A PSI is a Pre-Sentencing Investigation and it is usually carried out by a parole or probation officer in order to help the judge arrive at a correct sentence. In my opinion, it is one of the most egregious areas of rampant abuse in the criminal justice system.

Basically, what this means is that a Parole or Probation officer meets with you for about an hour prior to sentencing and asks you a large number of questions.

So, I was charged in two counties, which meant I had to get two PSIs. One of my PSI's was very professionally done and while I didn't agree with everything that he said, I thought it was fair. In the other county, I had a very different experience. 

For instance, when the parole agent asked me:

"Have you ever done drugs"

I responded:

I experimented with marijuana in college and tried cocaine once or twice in college (I was 42 when I as arrested, so this was decades ago and I have never been charged with any drug crimes).

The PSI concluded that I had a "lifelong" and "persistent" drug problem.

Someone might respond that you can challenge the PSI in court. That is true, and we did, but the damage is already done at that point, you usually only get the PSI right before sentencing, and they don't always follow through on judges orders. The two portions of my PSI that were supposed to be stricken from the PSI never were (for example).

Remember, this is a document that judges weigh in their sentencing and that the DOC uses at every stage of the process from intake through parole and it was written by someone who is not an expert, is not a lawyer, and has known you for about an hour.

Rediculous. Should be banned. One of the most kafkaesque parts of a very kafkaesque system.

4. "The Food Here Is Really Terrible"

The character of Galina "Red" Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew) is one of my favorite characters, so I say this with some reluctance. Nobody gives two damns about food quality in jail or prison.

Everyone knows the food sucks and nobody would be offended by someone suggesting that the food sucks.

In fact, while prisoners do serve as supervisors at every level of food production, they work on shifts and certainly do not run the kitchens 24/7.

It is a nice fiction, and I was really happy Kate Mulgrew got a great role again, but it just doesn't work that way. Prison food is awful and jail food is even worse. 

When I was in jail, for instance, the kitchen got condemned for black mold problems so while they rebuilt, we had to eat sandwiches and chips with kool-aid three times a day (in essence, bag lunches). To be 100% honest, that may have been an improvement even if you really couldn't tell what the meat exactly was in the sandwiches.

I figured that was a decent story to share since when Piper is warned away from the pudding she is told about the kitchen scraping the mold off the top of the pudding.

I get that the character Red tries to make terrible food better and actually cares about the food. But nobody would blame anyone for hating the food in prison. Maybe the real Piper's experience was different (Again, I didn't do Federal time or time at a Women's facility)?

5. Controlled Movement

One of my biggest gripes with the show, and most jail and prison shows, is the depiction of the freedom of movement.

In prisons and in jails you have what is called "controlled movement." In other words, you are not allowed to move wherever you want whenever you want.

You are allowed to go only certain places at certain times.

When you are not where you are supposed to be, you get what are called "Out Of Place" tickets. These tickets range from minor to major. Getting a major out of place ticket is a really big deal. 

In the worst case scenario, say you are out taking rec time (on the yard) and decide to go into an "Out of Place" area, you can literally be shot (they have people in guard towers with rifles for just this reason).

At the end of S1 E3 Piper just runs out of the cafeteria holding her tray and runs outside of her cafeteria and unit (where she runs into Alex who apparently can also just wander around the prison). 

Maybe women's prisons are really different than men's prisons. But, in my experience, this just doesn't happen. She would have been taken back inside and given a major out of place ticket.

I am sure this seems like a small thing to you, but every time I see someone walking around all over the prison I actually feel it viscerally. My body actually screams "Out of Place."

Okay, well that was what I had for S1 E1 "I Wasn't Ready." 

Today's quote is:

"I mean, she told me how she traveled after college. But she failed to mention the lesbian lover who ran an international drug smuggling ring. Imagine my surprise." - Larry Bloom

Unlocking The Gates


Okay,  another post down (these are emotional for me). Several people said they really liked the passion and anger I brought to the first post. The issues in S1 E3 probably weren't as raw to me as some of the issues I covered in the first piece but I suspect I will reach a boil again soon.

A few things I would suggest checking out. 

I liked the recent Ava DuVernay documentary "13th" which is also on Netflix:

And Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow" is a really important book, you should check it out too.

I will try to keep recommending new studies and literature throughout.

This week's question for comments:

If you had to go to Lichfield, who would you want to share a cube with? And why?

Until next time :)