Orange is the New Black: Orange Black or Bleak: S1 E3 “Lesbian Request Denied” (Netflix)

Orange, Black, or Bleak S1 E3: “Lesbian Request Denied”

I have decided, as a formerly incarcerated person, to do a deep-dive into OITNB to explain things that people who have not been to prison might not understand.

I chose OITNB because it is the least "Prison Porn" show out of the many shows on television about prison, jail, and about the criminal justice system (it accords humanity to its prisoners). I  also chose the show because, like Piper, I entered prison for the first time as a relatively privileged, white, adult.

If you have not watched OITNB before *Spoiler Alert*

5 Things About Season 1 Episode 3 "Lesbian Request Denied"


The "Lesbian Request Denied" episode primarily deals with three storylines:

* The backstory of how Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox) came to prison and some of the unique struggles she faces as a Trans woman (including the adjustments required of her wife and son).

* The backstory of how Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) first met Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) and the beginning of the contrast between that relationship and Piper's innocence and new "good life."

* Piper's struggle to disentangle herself from the romantic machinations of Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren (Uzo Aduba). You will rarely see me use the "Crazy Eyes" nickname because I find her one of the most engaging characters and that the nickname is more placed on her than something she embraces or chooses (she introduced herself as Suzanne to Piper, so I am calling her Suzanne).

5. Spanish Harlem, The Suburbs, and the Ghetto

At the beginning of Episode 3, Piper hasn't yet been assigned to a "cube" (the two-person areas housing two inmates - FYI, in most prisons, people are stacked 6 or 8 people to a cube - in Litchfield, at this point, it is 2 people to a cube).

Piper's temporary roommates inform her that the length of her temporary stay is probably due to prison officials waiting for space to open up in the "Suburbs" (aka where the unit where the white people are housed). Later in the episode, they all laugh when Piper is ultimately assigned to the Ghetto (where all of the people of color are housed).

I was not a Federal inmate, but in the two jails and four prisons where I was incarcerated in my three years, we were never segregated by race. I do find it interesting that OITNB suggests here that racism starts with the Department of Prison (that racism is seen by the administration as an institutional necessity)

Prisons do use forms of segregation, for instance, prison inmates were separated by theoretical dangerousness at all of the prisons where I was incarcerated. I was a level one inmate (lowest dangerousness level) but spent a short amount of time at a level 2 (moderate dangerousness level) facility and several jails as well. 

Litchfield apparently also separates their inmates by dangerousness in addition to race as the units where the women of OITNB reside are often differentiated from the "Super-Max" facility nearby in the complex (The last prison where I as incarcerated included a level one facility, a level two facility, and a level three facility).

I probably should mention here that segregation by dangerousness is rarely very successful. 

From everything I have been told by old timers, level one prisons (at least in Michigan) are frequently the most violent prisons in the entire system. Some of the reasons for this include:

* The majority of inmates are housed in the smallest spaces at the lower levels (a level two prison, for instance, has two people to a room and maybe 80 people total per unit while a level one prison has 8 people in a cube and 160 or so people total per a unit.

* The higher the level the less time that inmates are given to exercise or to congregate.

* There are more CO's per inmate at the higher levels and a much more rigid daily schedule.

* Higher level prisoners have a much higher concentration of lifers. Lifers tend to prefer less drama and more peace and quiet. This is not a universal truth, but it is fairly accurate.

Racism is, of course, sometimes, the cause of violence in prison. But, there is a working relationship even between racist whites and blacks in the prisons I was located in.

When the whites were alone, they would sit around saying terribly racist things about black and brown people but whenever Black or Brown folks were around, everyone just acted like everything was copacetic (it was bizarre).

In many cases, this is probably because gangs often trump ideologies in prison and gangs, to keep their businesses running smoothly, have to have a functional working relationship.  

There were, however, plenty of non-racist whites people in prison (thank goodness) and I personally was never leveraged or pressured by any racist white people to join any racist group or act in any racist ways. Yes, there were gangs in prison. But, apparently, they weren't recruiting middle-aged former college administrators (bonus).

It is also important to remember that because our country's  most recent wave of mass incarceration started in the 80's with the war on crack cocaine (found mostly in inner-cities as opposed to cocaine found mostly in suburbs) that black and brown people vastly outnumber whites in prison (which makes segregation difficult if not impossible).

Hopefully, someone reading this who has done Federal time can clarify if racial segregation happens in Federal prisons.

4. Prison Cutbacks

Much of the drama in S1 E3 is generated from prison cutbacks that close down both the exercise yard (correctional officer cutbacks) and cause the dispensary to move to generic medicines (which results in Sophia's hormone dosages being reduced).

After Sofia takes drastic measures to get sent to medical to get new hormones (she swallows the head of one of Healy's bobbleheads), she finds herself in an even worse position after the unsympathetic doctor decides to suspend her hormones entirely (to investigate possible liver damage).

Michigan state prisons were undergoing extensive cutbacks throughout my entire period of incarceration. Everything from food services to medical care was "streamlined" while I was inside (they even experimented with privatization). However, they never closed exercise yards, and I suspect that they never would.

The most effective anti-violence instruments in prison IMHO are:

* Personal Televisions

* Video Cameras

* The Exercise Yard

Violence absolutely happens on the exercise yard (or yard), but the violence on the yard is nothing compared to what would happen if you tried to bottle up an entire prison inside the units for the vast majority of time every day.

Prisons are, in general, overcrowded and exercise yards are the primary safety-valve. 

It is very unlikely the yard would be closed, even as a cost-cutting measure. It is somewhat unclear if the entire yard was shut down or just the "track" area. I guess that it is theoretically possible only one area of the yard (the track) was shut down but, the most important part of the yard is the exercise areas. 

It still seems to me unlikely that the exercise areas would (or should) be closed.

3. "Strip-searched on the way out"

One of the great mysteries of life, apparently, is how contraband (like drugs and cell phones) get into prisons.

If you ask Departments of Corrections (DOC) they will insist that the majority of contraband comes from people visiting their prisoners. If you ask prisoners, we are pretty sure most of the contraband comes in with guards.

OITNB is kind of agnostic on how contraband reaches prisons. In this episode, they have Piper explain that prisoners get strip-searched on the way out of the visiting room (this is 100% true - full nude, bend over and spread, and open your mouth).  At the same time, they have Sophia ask her wife to bring hormone pills during visits for her (it is difficult to manage hand-offs and beat the strip-searches, but I am sure that some people do it). 

The show doesn't stop there, however, it also presents Red (Kate Mulgrew) and Officer Mendez (Pablo Schrieber) as regular alternative vectors for contraband. 

My personal opinion, because of the intense searches before and after visitation, the majority of contraband most likely comes from the guards.

Prisoners certainly work in collusion with particular guards too, some people certainly get things through during the visitation process (but it is very complicated and difficult), and often guards have relationships with people out in the community that creates opportunities for collusion (including gangs).

This doesn't mean that prisoners aren't capable of thinking of crafty ways to get contraband through the visitation process but, if you think about it, the amount of contraband that prisoners could get through compared to the amount of contraband that exists inside prison doesn't add up. 

On my very first day in prison after I left Quarantine, as I was getting orientated, I walked by one of the guards playing poker, with stakes, with inmates.

In other words, one of the very first Correctional Officers I ever saw was gambling with inmates for contraband (in this case, the stakes were cigarettes, which were not allowed in prison). I cannot count the times I saw things like that.

But it certainly wasn't just cigarettes getting through.  

2. "Liver-Damage"

I never met any Trans people in prison but I can only imagine how hard prison must be for people with real medical needs. 

You have to respect Sophia's commitment to being a woman. Yes, she made some terrible decisions (as did I) but you cannot question her commitment to being a woman. It is hard to even imagine just the pain from the surgeries that she had to endure to make her transition. 

There is also a scene where Assistant Warden Natalie Figueroa (Alysia Rainer) asks "why would anyone ever give up being a man." "It's like winning the lottery and giving the ticket back."

Just wanted to mention that because that kind of feeling (which is expressed by Red later) is, from what I understand from my Trans friends, is pretty common and considered extremely insulting (in other words, OITNB does a really good job exposing prejudice).

Anyway, medical care, at least in Michigan prisons, is awful.

In quarantine, I was basically molested by the Doctor doing the intake physical and the rest of my experience with medical care in prison was not much better.

You will rarely if ever, meet a doctor in a Michigan prison. The clinics are supervised by a Doctor but the Doctor is rarely in. At one point, I got MRSA (a huge problem in prisons) and even then, I never saw a Doctor.  

When I was having blood pressure problems, never saw a doctor.

Registered nurses do all the work in prisons until something is registered as an "Emergency."

When I say that I never saw a Doctor, I mean literally that I rarely, if ever,  even saw a Doctor in the medical clinic in the prison. 

When I had MRSA they didn't even quarantine me, I was kept in my cube throughout the whole experience. I had to walk from my bed across the yard and get my medicine from the dispensary several times a day then walk back to my bed.

When I had MRSA I ate, with everyone else, in the cafeteria.

We did have to put all of my clothing and bedding in biohazard bags and turn them in after I recovered.

Everyone in my cube and I did have to scrub every inch of our cube with industrial cleaners after I recovered.

And I only had MRSA, there were people suffering from all kinds of terrible maladies and injuries in prison. The only exception to medical care being terrible was when someone had an emergency. 

I had a friend who had a serious eye injury and he was taken to a specialist and ultimately had surgery from University of Michigan eye surgeons. 

As OITNB suggests, Prison medicine is run entirely by balancing costs and the risk of lawsuits. If the risk of a lawsuit is high, you get good care and in all other cases, you get terrible care.

Some of you might be thinking that prisoners deserve what they get, however, prison is awful with or without great medical care. Just feeling the doors lock behind you and knowing you can't leave is pretty awful. My judge never sentenced me to terrible medical care.

1. "Lesbian Request Denied"

Yes, many of the counselors are total idiots like Healy (Michael Harney). 

My last ARUS (Michigan for counselor) sent me to the wrong County upon release despite multiple conversations both about where I had an apartment set up and where I had lived prior to prison (he sent me to Macomb instead of Washtenaw County - I had literally never physically ever been to Macomb County except for sentencing and jail).

Healy is one of those guys who thinks he cares about helping other people, but really just wants to impose his world view on people by picking winners and losers. He sees his attempts to reward the women he thinks are okay at the expense of the ones he doesn't approve of and considers it mercy

Healy, as we find out throughout the season, deep-down hates women. He translates every gendered response that he can't understand (or accept) into a judgment on appropriate sexuality.

If someone defies him, for instance, it must be because they are lesbians (not real women). At one point, he even suggests that butch lesbians should be rounded up and placed in a seperate wing so that they don't contaminate the real women.

And yes, I met CO's just like Mendez too. 

There are great CO"s, terrible CO's, and criminal CO's (I will talk much more about this in future episodes). 

But the important thing to know here, especially when Piper takes sides with Healy against Suzanne (yes, Suzanne should never have volunteered Piper for a move but Healy would never have approved that move so she didn't need to throw Suzanne under the bus to Healy) is that Piper should never side with Healy.

If there is any code in prison, it is that prisoners do not side with CO's and certainly do not collude with them. Yes, many inmates end up colluding, but if you get marked as a rat, prison will be a really bad time for you.

To me, Piper should have found a different answer to the Suzanne problem and certainly should never have offered up information to Healy about Suzanne.

This might seem strange to you, but what Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst) said:

"This is not America, this is the Litch (and I have been here a long while)."

Personally, I think Suzanne pissed on the floor both because Piper dumped her but also because Piper broke one of the most important unwritten rules. Prisoners work out their problems with other prisoner's, not by bringing in the guards.

CO's are on one team and prisoners are on the other. That is just how it is.

That is just how it is.

Prisoners live by different rules.

Unlocking The Gates


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). 

Today's Comment Question is:

"What shocked you most about prison while watching season one of Orange is the New Black?" 

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

Today's book is Maria Gottschalk's book "Caught."