Orange is the New Black: Orange Black or Bleak: S1 E4 “Imaginary Enemies” (Netflix)

Orange, Black, or Bleak S1 E4: “Imaginary Enemies”

I, as a formerly incarcerated person, have decided to do a deep-dive into OITNB to help explain things that people without a felony background might not catch or understand.

I am also trying to make a case for many criminal and social justice reforms.

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 the inmates their humanity). I  also chose it 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 4 "Imaginary Enemies"

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The "Imaginary Enemies" episode covers:

* Miss Claudette's entire backstory from when she arrived in this country as an immigrant all the way to when she committed the crime that landed her in prison (she was running a cleaning service that hired immigrants, and murdered a client who abused one of her young workers - the episode leaves a heavy hint that she was also abused while she was working for the same service as a young girl).

* Piper Chapman's continued adjustment to prison life including her gradual acceptance of why she is in prison and learning how to stand up for herself. 

* The constant experience that most inmates share of feeling completely vulnerable and insecure at all times while in prison. 

5. "You Clean The Piss"

Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst) might seem to be a bit extreme in her expectations of cube cleanliness, but her perspective is pretty typical. Most people in prison are extreme germaphobes and neat freaks. 

In every "cube" that I was ever placed in, we cleaned the whole "cube" thoroughly from top to bottom several times a week.

Every unit provides cleaning supplies and schedules daily times when you can use them. 

People in prison are often germaphobes partially because of ignorance of how particular diseases are communicated. But also, with so many people packed in and the constant threat of transmission between inmates, they have concerns that are not entirely irrational.

Many of the inmates that I was housed with wouldn't even touch a door handle without first covering their hands (usually with the sleeve of their coat).

People in prison are often neat freaks because when everything you own in the world has been reduced to what you can fit into a duffel bag or a footlocker, you take much better care of the few things that you "own."

Also, when you own very little, and you are constantly told by guards and society that you are basically a sub-human animal, you start to try to project pride and find dignity in the few things and spaces that are left available to you.

If that means using the unit iron to put a crease in your prison blues, you put a crease in your blues.

Now I am not saying that everyone deals with prison the same way (some people go the opposite way and embrace the anarchism) but many people put a great deal of energy into making sure that their bodies (and the small corner of the world that they still have some control over) look presentable every day.

Most of the people that I ever bunked with would have been furious about the piss incident (in fact, Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) would likely have been in trouble for doing that too because she was disrespecting Miss Claudette). And, like Miss Claudette, one of the big rules we always had in my cubes was "leave your drama out of the cube."

Claudette, in fairness, is much nicer to Piper (Taylor Schilling) than most inmates would have been. Your cube and bunk are your home, it is almost the only small promise of relative peace that you still have in prison (there is a reason inmates refer to their bunk's as their "house").

Oh, also, the part at the end where Claudette smiles because Piper stands up for herself is real too. If there is one absolute rule in prison it is that you have to stand up for yourself. Nobody who will not stand up for themselves gets respect in prison.

4. "I Asked to be put in the Education Program" 

Piper is surprised when she finds herself assigned a job in the electrical repair shop instead of the education program (she was a TA in college apparently).

My experience was very similar to Piper's.

When I reached prison I had an MA in International Relations and 20 years of experience coaching and teaching at the college level.

One of the things I repeatedly told myself before reaching prison was "at least I will be able to help other people further their education."


I was in prison for three years and helped officially teach exactly ZERO people.

Later in the episode, Counselor Healy (Michael Harney) informs Piper that she was assigned to electrical instead of education because mold in the GRE classroom had shut down the education program (GRE educational programs are usually a legislative requirement so it is unlikely that they would shut the program down).

But the real reason someone like Piper probably wouldn't have gotten assigned to either Electrical Shop or Education is simple. She was a new inmate. New inmates don't get skilled positions (there are waiting lists).

Skilled labor earns a higher prison wage than unskilled labor, so there is a great deal of competition for the skilled positions (with some skilled positions, the prison doesn't have the capacity to train inmates so someone new can jump the line but for most positions, there is a waiting list).

I remained on the waiting list to become a tutor for my full three years (despite 20 years of teaching experience).

Just for the record, most new inmates start in janitorial positions.

I was a unit porter for almost my entire time in prison (I was an assistant to a blind inmate for my last 6 months). This means that I cleaned bathrooms for close to two years (eventually, I moved up to cleaning baseboards and walls in the unit).

To be honest, I really didn't mind.

There are some disgusting aspects of cleaning prison bathrooms but it is honest work and when you do a good job, everyone appreciates it (everyone has to use the bathroom).

I did unofficially tutor people all the time, I worked with people on writing skills, basic math skills, and even helped them write letters home. But, it would have been nice to use my skills to help the widest number of people.

Keeping qualified people out of the jobs that they are most qualified for seems like a high opportunity cost of paying different rates for different skills. 

As for the electrical shop at Litchfield. They sure seem to have a surprisingly high number of electrical trainees for a prison.

In Michigan, a few prisoners work with each of the civilian electrician contracted by the MDOC.

Basically, the inmates follow their electrician around the compound working their way down a daily repairs list.

When there is a problem, he or she tells them how to fix it and gives them the tools and supervises them making the fix (they would bring big rolling tool and equipment boxes with them).

After something like the "screwdriver incident" happened, the warden or ranking duty officer would have likely quarantined (and strip-searched) all of the inmates working in the electrical shop, canceled all of the current and future yard activities, and instituted a full search of the premises until that screwdriver was found.

And, yes, the cube search where Mendez (Pablo Schreiber) throws everything Claudette and Piper own all over their room is pretty accurate (some officers take great joy in showing you how easily they can upend your entire life). 

What Caputo (Nick Sandow) said was also right. A screwdriver would be considered a weapon (dangerous contraband) and would (potentially) add new charges to an inmates jacket (you still would have to go through the legal process and be convicted of the new crime, but there is a much lower bar for being convicted of a new crime when you are already in prison).

Caputo also had one of the all-time great lines of official spin in prison history here when he said, "if you cooperate, it shows me that you have nothing to hide." 

Trust me, in prison, the guilty parties are almost never the people left holding the bag.

3. "Is the 'SHU' Really That Bad?"

Piper almost immediately realizes how stupid this question was, so I will cut her a break here.

But if you were wondering, Solitary is AWFUL.

Also, SHU stands for "Security Housing Unit" aka the place where inmates are kept in solitary confinement

I was never put in solitary for disciplinary reasons but I was put in solitary for one day because I made the mistake of admitting that I felt a bit depressed on my first day of jail time.

Yes, I only spent one day in solitary, but it was more than enough for me to understand that I never wanted to spend another day in solitary for the rest of my life.

If, as you are reading this, you are thinking that it would be easy. Let me remind you that you can't talk to (or see) anyone else, you have no television, you have no phone, you have no books, you have no magazines, and you have no clock. You are not allowed to make loud noises (or sing).

You are radically alone with only your thoughts, your bunk, and a toilet.

You can pace endlessly in a very narrow space, you can do some exercises, and occasionally you can try to eat whatever slop that they shove at you through the slot in the door.

I tried very hard to come up with distractions in my head (for instance, I got pretty good at reciting the alphabet backward).

Solitary is awful.

Believe it or not, I met several people who had spent a year or more in solitary.

If you think solitary doesn't sound so bad, I challenge you to lock yourself in your room with these same constraints for just one day and then try to imagine living a year (or even more) like that. 

In many parts of the United States, solitary is used both as protection and for punishment and it can last for someone's entire sentence.

In many jails in the United States, solitary (combined with prescribed pharmaceuticals) is used as a substitute for mental health care. 

We are a very cruel society.

2. "Chapman Is Writing My Appeal"

Tricia (Madeline Brewer) wants to win a legal appeal of her case so that she can join her prison wife Mercy (Katie Iacona) out in the real world after Mercy's impending release. 

So she asks Piper to help her out and write "her letter."

I have absolutely no idea what "letter" they are talking about here. This could be some bizarre element of the Federal system that has no counterpart in State corrections.

Yes, of course, there are "prison lawyers" in correctional facilities.

Yes, of course, these "prison lawyers" often help write appeals.

But an appeal is a long and involved process that involves learning the law and trying to apply it in defense of overturning your "client's" original case. A "prison lawyer" does this while fighting against the entire weight of the correctional and judicial systems and with none of the investigative or discovery powers an actual attorney might have.

Most prison lawyers spend every possible minute studying the law (in most prisons you are allowed access to a law library with permission). Successful prison lawyers are often harassed and subject to retaliation by the DOC (most often they are constantly moved from facility to facility so that it is harder to keep in contact with "clients" etc.).

Maybe Piper was talking about a letter to the parole board? Maybe it was a commutation letter to the Governor? It certainly was not an appeal. 

This was one of the most inexplicable things that I have ever seen on the show.

If Piper was going to start helping other people with "appeals" (as is suggested later in the episode) she would have to either get assigned to work in the law library or spend all of her free time in the law library (after kiting to get assigned law library times - you can't just go where you want to go and when you want to go there- you have to ask and get permission and get assigned a time).

Chapman might indeed be "hella smart" but she doesn't have magic powers (I am pretty sure the show writer's figured this out too because Piper doesn't appear in the role of "prison lawyer" very ofter during the rest of the season's of the show). 

1. "Hope Is A Dangerous Thing"

Post-Prison Traumatic Stress Disorder (yes, this is a real thing) happens for a lot of reasons.

Obviously, because you rarely know who might want to hurt or extort you, every day in prison feels like you are living totally exposed in open rooms and spaces filled with people who might want to do you harm.

Very early on in your prison term, you learn that CO's are not there to protect you. CO's number one priority is to protect themselves, their number two priority is to protect the DOC, and their number three priority is to stop violence from escalating. 

Some CO"s are out to hurt you (In fairness, I did meet many CO's who were extremely professional and/or compassionate as well).

Even when you have personally never been threatened or attacked, violence (and the implicit threat of violence) is always all around you.

I woke up one night covered in someone else's blood as they were being beaten down with a gym bag full of locks right outside of my cube.

I once saw a man run through with the jagged end of a broken pool cue.

I saw people stabbed and beaten senseless by groups of people so often that it became a normal expectation.

Remember, I spent most of my time at a "level one" prison (the lowest security level).

During "Imaginary Enemies" Piper talks about waking up every morning forgetting where she is and having to remember the horror that her life has become.

And, even if you don't end up paranoid about violence, you have to struggle every day with the existential crisis.

Every prisoner stands like Meursault in Camus' the Stranger (reduced to constantly contemplating the "benign indifference of the universe).

Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) puts it this way "I had grand plans but now I can't even get past the swirling darkness in my brain."

Miss Claudette echoes Red (Morgan Freeman) from Shawshank Redemption when she says, "Hope is a dangerous thing."

But the truth is that we prisoners were always caught between hope, the normal daily events, and the lure of giving into despair. 

Hope is dangerous, not hoping is dangerous, and just going through the motions is dangerous.

Living in prison at all is dangerous.

And, to me, that is what the Imaginary Enemies episode is really about

Life in prison is the constant knowledge that you can't leave and the constant stress of the imminent danger that seems omnipresent twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year.

Prison is like living in a mortality pressure cooker.

Mortality outside of prison is like being the lobster in the slow cooking pot (barely aware of aging and the increasing risk of death).

Mortality inside prison is like being a lobster in a pot that was designed and made by sadists, tended to by sadists, and overseen by sadists for consumption by a group of diners who believe lobster tastes better when it has been cooked under stress.

My Problems with Health Care Paternalism

That is it for the recap but I wanted to talk about something from current events.

Recently many "conservative" legislators have asked that continued Federal support for the Medicaid expansion under the ACA be conditioned on "work" and other paternalistic requirements. 

This will have a huge impact on the formerly incarcerated.

So, this is going to be kind of a long rant, feel free to move on to the end of the post if you want.

I have a number of objections to health care (and food stamp) paternalism:

* I find it offensive that any person in America's right to be treated should be contingent on a value judgment about their worth as a human being.

Healthcare should be considered a human right.

And yes, if that was not clear enough,  I am saying that even so-called "lazy" people deserve health care.

The idea that these legislator's care more about someone's work habits than they do about their health is disgusting to me as a Christian (Matthew 25).

* Many of the people who need assistance the most are the ones who are the least able to work (or at least to work in the most ways able-bodied, educated, and qualified people are able to work - the mentally ill or instance).

Safety nets should provide safety, not judgment.

I have paid taxes every adult year of my life (except for my three years in prison when I did not make enough money to qualify). When I need help, or anyone else needs help, we should be able to ask without being judged and insulted. 

I am really tired of hearing comparatively rich people bemoaning the luxurious lives that poor folks are living at the expense taxpayers.

Being poor sucks, it is not fun, getting benefits is not a golden ticket but for many people, getting benefits is a lifesaver.

If you have never been poor, I suggest walking a mile in someone else's shoes before passing judgment. Come visit some poor neighborhoods, see the struggles we face up close and personal. 

I notice that the GOP does not want to condition the massive tax breaks built into the new health care package on many of the same intrusive requirements. It is apparently okay to give rich people huge amounts of money without conditions but not the people who need it most. 

If you have been poor, and are still judging, shame on you.

* Last but not least, guess what class of people have the hardest time finding and maintaining employment?

Yup, you guessed it, the formerly incarcerated. 

Let me share some of my experience dealing with these paternalistic "work" rules in the past.

I, for instance, went to prison after 20 years coaching and serving as a University Administrator and returned as someone who couldn't even get a job waiting tables.

In my case, after being refused for many jobs that I was overqualified for, I decided to try freelance writing.

After a lot of struggles, I now have a client roster of folks who hire me to write web content and marketing materials.

Maintaining clients and acquiring new clients is very hard work and sometimes there are months where I struggle (there is a lot of client churn in freelance writing).

Unfortunately, when I have had to turn to the State and Federal government for temporary help, in the elaborate and paternalistic work schemes that they create, much of the work that I do is undercounted and all of the writing for this blog and my recovery blog are not counted at all.

In other words, if I could get a job working for someone else, my time would be counted 100% but because I work for myself, I get credit for about 20 hours of the 80-100 hours I work a week.

When I first got out of prison was when I needed help the most. When my business was doing well, I ended every benefit that I no longer qualified for (I kept in ACA because I still qualified), and when I had a bad month or needed help again I was faced with an embarrassing, intrusive, and complicated process for reapplication.

After finishing that extensive reapplication process, I was informed that I only "work" 20 hours a week by their formulas and would have to go to "work training" or "community service" in addition to working with a job counselor.

Like I have time for that nonsense, I work hard for my clients and put every other hour into writing, my faith community, my recovery community, and the reform organizations that I work with.

Building a business involves a lot of struggles and many failures. Basically, the schemes that they construct base the hours that you can count as the hours you actually get paid.  That is total bullshit. 

It has, for instance, taken me a year to build my readership of this blog to where I have almost made $100 from advertising (and I consider that a victory).

But what I am really getting at, I hope, is that this notion that some judgmental jerk that I have never met can tell me if my work counts "worky" enough is nuts.

But, most important, it might help to remember that formerly incarcerated people have real struggles finding and keeping work (because often, even those employers who "ban the box" find out later about a felony background and fire people).

I succeeded at every job I ever had prior to incarceration. In my last "official" job, I raised over a million dollars a year for six years in a row while at the same time running a very successful competitive academic program. 

There is a huge difference between laziness and working the countless hours necessary to make a new business work. I and many other formerly incarcerated people feel that our only realistic option is to start our own businesses (so that we are not working at the whim of employers who might fire us at any time for our criminal past).

Do I want taxpayers to fund a life of luxury, no...But I would like to be able to buy some food or go to the Doctor if I am hungry or sick and having a bad month financially.

Unlocking The Gates


Okay, that is it for today. I have been trying to do two a week (we will see if I can keep up this pace).

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 Job Would You Want If Sentenced to Prison?" 

I would love to get to know the folks reading my stuff, so, leave a comment.  Or, if you have questions, I respond to 100% of my comments and love a good discussion! 

Today's book is Shaka Senghor's Book "Writing My Wrongs: Life Death and Redemption in an American Prison"