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Orange  is the New Black: Orange Black or Bleak: S1 E2 “Tit Punch” (Netflix)

Orange is the New Black: Orange Black or Bleak: S1 E2 “Tit Punch” (Netflix)

Orange, Black, or Bleak

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 without incarceration in their background might not really understand from the television show.

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. That said, If you are a formerly incarcerated person or a family member or friend, please 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, I  also chose it because like the original protagonist, I entered prison for the first time as a relatively privileged, white, adult.

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. If you like the posts, please share em.

If you want a soundtrack, and like alternative music (Flaca Fans) my newest Spotify Playlist is called "Lola Want War" (I put out new playlists every Tuesday).

If you have not watched OITNB before *Spoiler Alert*

5 Things About Season 1 Episode 2 "Tit Punch"

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The "Tit Punch" episode primarily covers Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) as she attempts to make good with Red (after insulting her food) and also tells a small bit of Red's backstory (she got angry at the wife of a Russian mob member and accidentally punctured the woman's boob job). 

But, I am not doing traditional recaps here, my goal is to give you some insight into some of the things happening behind the storylines in the hopes that it adds some new depth to your watching of the episode. 

Last week's comment question was "If you had to live in Litchfield Prison, who would you want to share a cube with and why. I am keeping that question for one more week, so feel free to respond (or ask me any questions that you may have by leaving a comment).

Okay, here we go!

5. "Like This is the Radisson and You Don't Like Your Room"

Early in the episode, as a result of Red not allowing her to eat, Piper goes to Counselor Sam Healy (Michael Harney) and asks to be transferred to a different prison.

So first, yes, as an Inmate you can ask for a transfer but you would then have to suggest that your personal safety is directly at risk in your current prison.  In fact, if the request is granted, you are moved to segregation (solitary confinement) until space at a different prison is found for you.

In addition, moving prisons is no panacea.

In Michigan, any inmate can "run a prisoner's tag."

In other words, many prisoners are connected with people in the outside world through, for instance, gangs or families. So, if someone at the first prison was mad at an inmate who subsequently locked themselves up they would put the word out to their gang connections outside the prison.

Those connected people outside the prison would:

*  Do a search of the state or federal database (created to help victims and the public get information about prisoners) to find out everything that they need to know about that prisoner (in Michigan this system is a searchable database called OTIS). 

*  Spread the prison number, any other relevant information, and prisoners name across the network to other prisoners throughout the state.

In other words, your deeds in prison follow you throughout the prison system. If you pissed someone "important" off, it will likely follow you even if you lock up.

If you are wondering about counselors in general, yes, Healy is a fairly typical version of what is called in Michigan Prisons an ARUS (I forgot what the acronym stands for but I am pretty sure the "US" stands for Unit Supervisor). 

Unit supervisors are almost always officers who choose to become counselors and the ARUS is responsible for everything that happens in the unit and for communicating rules and procedures to the officers in each unit. 

Inmates are not afforded immediate access to courts, they have to go through an in-house quasi-legal process of exhausting a four-part grievance process. In other words, before an inmate can request relief from a court they have to go through the entire grievance process first. The ARUS is also the person you go to to get the paperwork necessary to start the grievance process.

So, yes, prison is kind of like a Radisson, but one where changing rooms will be unlikely to fix your problems.

4. "Welcome To The Federal Department Of Corrections"

Piper and many of the other new inmates go through a semi-comic orientation session. This was a fairly accurate depiction of orientation. The videos they show are exactly that absurd and the officers tell you information that is virtually useless. 

In Michigan, the video warns inmates that if someone leaves candy on your bed that you should immediately throw that candy out in the hallway (because to accept candy is to accept a sexual overture). In my experience, being given candy is the least of your concerns.

During orientation was when we were given physical, mental, and behavioral testing (called a COMPASS) that is supposed to help the prison determine your dangerousness level. In Michigan, the entire orientation process happens in a separate prison called Quarantine where all inmates spend approximately a month before they are sent to your final prison destination.

I have a friend who is just starting to watch OITNB who wondered why there are so many jokes on the show. I responded that the show includes a lot of comedy because:

* The day to day life and operation of a prison is so bizarre and kafkaesque that I imagine it is hard to explain without comedy.

* I believe that the show is trying to convey that inmates retain their humanity regardless of where they are. In other words, comedy and laughter are a part of everyday life, even for prisoners. Prisoners, even "dangerous" prisoners remain human beings. As dark as prison gets there is still a lot of laughter.

3. "No Baggy Hip Hop Pants"

This is a real thing.

Correctional Officers (CO"s) hate "sagging" pants (prison pants do not usually come with belts). On our unit window were guidelines for how to wear pants and a warning that "sagging" would get inmates tickets.

 CO's can often be heard telling people to "pull up their pants" and screaming about not wanting to see our "asses."

They are actually kind of obsessed with this and it does seem to be a way for officers to express their racism in a way that will not get them into trouble most of the time (the majority of guards at most prisons I was at were white and the majority of the inmate population were people of color)..

Officers even tried to push the narrative that if someone was wearing "sagging pants" that doing so meant that they were inviting gay sex.

For some people, "sagging" is a fashion statement and for other's it can be a political protest (in opposition to the CO's). For some, it can simply be a sign of weight loss (prison food is exactly as bad as you would assume).

Oh, at one point during Piper's orientation, the assistant warden comes to talk to the inmates and says that she is always available but refuses to answer even one question. This is pretty accurate, in my three years in prison I only saw wardens or assistant wardens twice (in both instances, they were simply walking through the unit without talking to any inmates).

2. "Credit Denied" 

Piper tries to get some cocoa butter from Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox) but is initially denied because as Taystee (Danielle Brooks) put it "Credit Denied."

It is possible that since Piper is being shut-off by Red that she might be denied purchase by credit. However, prison runs on credit. The whole economic model of the inmate economy is based on credit and interest. 

In other words, this is not correct.

Now, probably the number one cause of violence in prison is debt. So, it makes sense not to use credit. But most inmates, when they don't have money, go to what is called a "Store Man" (or in this case 'Store Woman') whose business is selling things on credit and collecting with interest.

Usually, each store man or woman has a partner who is in charge of collection (the muscle).

If you are confused about how "money" works in prison, it is pretty simple. Inmates have commissary accounts and the money you earn working (for pennies per hour) or that your friends or family deposit in your account allow you to purchase goods from the store list (a list of goods approved for inmates by the warden). Those goods become tradable currency. 

Not all goods are of equal value (there are some things on the list that nobody wants).

In Michigan, the basic unit of currency is Ramen Noodles. In other words, all prices are negotiated around the number of Ramen Noodle packs you will owe. So, say I had no money and wanted a Honey Bun from a "Store Man" they would tell me the cost in Ramen Noodle packs.

You don't have to pay in Ramen Noodles, but you have to pay the value by Ramen Noodle packets (and it is wise to make sure that the person will accept your means of payment).

When I left prison, Ramen Noodle packets ran close to 40 cents a pack (like everything else in prison, the supplier and the prison inflate the cost massively - and yes, they inflate costs basically to rip-off the family of inmates). 

Between court costs, victim fees, phone email and mail costs (very high), commissary prices (inflated), supervision fees upon relief, and the ability of states to take whatever money you had in any accounts when you went to prison - the costs to prisoners and prisoners families are MASSIVE (tens of thousands of dollars).

Some of you will say, of course, prisoners should bear the costs, but the truth is coming out of prison with massive debt, a hard time finding housing, and a hard time getting jobs, is a major cause of recidivism.

If safety is the concern, you could not design a path to peaceful reintegration into society more poorly than the current "prisoners pay" model.

In addition, virtually all of these costs are borne (before and during imprisonment) by prisoner families who are almost always in poverty (and who also often have to take care of prisoner's children etc.). 

By the way, the amount of money in your commissary account is important for other reasons as well. One of the key reasons that people get targeted for extortion in prison is because they have too much money and are getting too much store (getting your goods is "getting store").

How do they know how much "store" you have?

First, the extortion rings generally have someone working "store." In other words, they see who is getting the biggest amount of store goods. When they see a new prisoner getting big store bags, that makes them a target for extortion. Also, if you walk around the unit and always have extra food and/or goods, people will see it and that can make you a target.

Anyway, the larger point is that the inmate prison economy runs on credit (credit is rarely declined but the interest might change based on your reliability and status).

One thing I forgot last week is that Piper gets asked why she is in prison and says "I thought nobody was supposed to ask you that" (I think the response was, "Did you study for prison" or something like that). The truth, everybody can find out what you did because most states have publically searchable sites. 

If anyone wants to know, they simply ask, and then after you answer they call a friend or family member on the outside and if the results don't match up, they will know that you lied etc.

In other words, I always told people what I did straight up (no percentage in lying). Most people won't ask, but someone always will.

1. Hot Peppers

Suzanne (Uzo Adubo aka "Crazy Eyes") brought Piper a few hot peppers which she subsequently used to make the lotion that she gives to Red (Kate Mulgrew).

Generally, a kitchen in prison would not have hot peppers (or any other food that could be weaponized). Prison food is incredibly bland because:

* Seasoning costs money...Especially,  the use of fresh produce for seasoning would be highly unlikely (I never saw a tomato in prison, for instance).

* Many people have food allergies and in order to avoid having to accommodate dietary needs, cafeterias err on the side of bland. 

* Seasoning is an opportunity for more store sales. You can buy salt and pepper as well as a "spice mix" on the store list. Yes, we literally carried salt and pepper shakers with us to meals every day (and it was important if you wanted any flavor in your food).

Also, hot pepper's, at least where I was located, was considered weaponized contraband. I am not kidding, you would actually be charged for having hot peppers.

That said, I did a few times acquire some hot peppers (allegedly). One of the jobs you can get in prison is working on the yard. Some people who have jobs on the yard work as gardeners. One of my cube mates planted some peppers among some flowers and brought some peppers back to the cube (a cube is a group of 8 prisoners in a level one prison - the lowest security level - in Michigan). 

Obviously, if he had gotten caught with the hot peppers, he would have gotten a ticket for having dangerous contraband and maybe even new charges.

One other thing, most prisons have moved from a centralized movie night to individual televised movies. In other words, every prisoner has the ability to buy a personal television set (this is in the prison's interest because it operates like a babysitter in many ways). Every weekend, the prison plays DVD movies through an internal network that each TV can access. 

The movies generally run on a loop all weekend, so everyone can watch them when they want to. It is not a collective experience (collective events require additional supervision).

Oh, sadly, the "Nobody Fucks with Cancer" statement by Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat) is kind of bullshit too. People who are sick are just as vulnerable as anyone else (often more vulnerable). But, I kind of love Rosa's character, so I will give that one a pass.

I also plan on doing a bigger thing on guards soon (if you are wondering, there are plenty of guards like Mendez aka Pornstache - Pablo Schreiber).

Unlocking The Gates

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So, most recently, I went to the capital to push for Nation Outside's 10 part Criminal Justice legislative reform agenda (I will find a way to embed the document in a future post) as part of the National Day Of Empathy.

It was exciting to meet with so many law-makers and I want to thank the members of both parties for recently sending the Governor 20 passed bills dealing with Criminal Justice Reform. It is my hope that Michigan will become a model for the rest of the country in how to safely end mass incarceration.

This is the third post in this series:

Part One: Orange, Black, or Bleak - Intro

Part Two: Orange, Black, or Bleak - S1 E1 "I Wasn't Ready"

If you are looking for a documentary to watch, I have been suggesting people watch 13th (also on Netflix).

If you want to fill out the comment question (instead of adding it to the comment section you can use this Google form.

If you are looking for a book to read, I have been suggesting "The New Jim Crow" but I am starting to read "Locked In" as a result of several real-time Twitter conversations with the author John Pfaff.

Let me know what you think and if you have any questions, please feel free to ask!

Dave Chapelle, Ian Svenonius, and Ill-Advised: "I Hate Radio" Music News 3/14/2017

Dave Chapelle, Ian Svenonius, and Ill-Advised: "I Hate Radio" Music News 3/14/2017

The "Lola Want War" Spotify Playlist (I Hate Radio)

The "Lola Want War" Spotify Playlist (I Hate Radio)