Orange is the New Black: Orange Black or Bleak: S1 E6 “WAC Pack” (Netflix)

Orange, Black, or Bleak S1 E6 "WAC Pack" 

As a formerly incarcerated person, I have been doing a deep-dive into the Netflix series Orange Is The New Black (OITNB) to help explain things that folks who are watching the show without a felony background might not catch or have the context to understand.

I am also trying to make the case for criminal and social justice reform.

I wanted to shout out some great discussions in the Reddit Orange Is The New Black room about the differences between Federal and State incarceration. It has been really fun to get to talk with some of you and thanks so much for reading (this has already become one of my most popular features, THANKS!).

I answer all comments and questions here or on Reddit or Twitter (as long as they are civil).

If you have not watched OITNB before *Spoiler Alert*

5 Things About Season 1 Episode 6 "WAC Pack"


S1 E6 "Wac Pack" deals with:

* The juxtaposition of Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) and Piper's real-world Moms (and perceptions of their Mom's) with Nicky's Mother/Daughter relationship with Red (Kate Mulgrew) and Piper's mothering from Alex. BTW, there is a nice bit in here when Nicky tells Red "I thought I was your Spock" (Kate Mulgrew played Captain Janeway on Star Trek Voyager).

* Counselor Healy's attempt to reduce tensions by re-creating the Women's Advisory Council (WAC). Mostly, this is used to highlight the politics of politics in prison. This is also used to demonstrate how Healy (Michael Harney) holds and judges all women by an unreachable standard. We also find out that Caputo (Nick Sandow) calls Sam Healy "Samantha."

* The deepening of the ongoing (and increasingly hard to believe) relationship between Daya (Dascha Polanco) and Officer Bennet (Matt McGorry). Also, there is more backstory about Daya and her Mom Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriguez).

*  Larry dropping the news on Piper (Taylor Schilling) that he is planning on writing about having a fiance in prison.

5. "You Never Would've Ended Up Here If You Had Gone to Trial"

Piper's Mom Carol (Deborah Rush) tells Piper that she would "never have ended up" in prison if she had taken her case to trial instead of accepting a plea-bargain.

If you have never encountered the American Justice System up close (or watched the documentary feature 13th) you might not know that 97% of all cases are plea-bargained prior to going to trial. Or that there is a HUGE disparity between sentences for people of color and poor people when compared to middle-class or upper-class white people.

So, most likely, Piper's Mom could have been right.

You might be wondering why so many people choose to shun their Constitutionally protected day in court. Here are some of the main reasons:

* Overcharging

Most likely, if you committed armed robbery, for instance, you would not only be charged with armed robbery but also with threatening bodily harm, attempted murder, using a handgun in the commission of a crime, and a litany of other ways to charge the same exact crime multiple times.

In essence, every arrested person is "charged" with a large number of counts each carrying a hefty sentence. When you add all of the charges together you find you are facing what seems like 100's of potential years in prison.

And then, the prosecutor offers your attorney a deal.

Usually, they make it clear that if you accept the deal, many or most of your charges will disappear (as if by magic) but that if you turn down the deal the prosecutor will push to make sure that you serve every day of every charge from the charging document.

No matter how bad the deal is, it sounds amazing compared to the alternative.

This is even more true, in some cases, if you are not guilty or guilty of less than they are charging you with. If you read the economic and racial information that I included above the reasons why will become even more obvious.

I was guilty of some of what they charged me with but wanted to fight the rest and still, I agreed to the plea. 


I felt that I did deserve to be punished, but did not want to risk spending 40 years in prison for a principle. It was just simple cost-benefit analysis.

* Poor Legal Representation

It is almost impossible to win a case charging your attorney as "ineffective counsel."

Especially since most people have court appointed attornies and many court-appointed attornies, regardless of competence, are overworked at best.

I remember standing outside in a hallway outside of the courtroom where I was due to enter a plea. I had about 30 minutes and nothing to do, so I started to look at the printed out schedule of cases stapled to the wall.

At first, I was just looking because I had nothing better to do, but eventually, I noticed something that has haunted me every since.

Some public defenders were working on up to 30 cases a week.

Not exactly the scene you see on Law & Order.

Piper may not have ended up in prison if she had gone to trial but it is no surprise to me that she accepted the plea. 

4. Prisoner Representation

Most of the episode is about Healy's attempt to create a safety valve for prisoner discontent through the creation of a new "Women's Advisory Council." 

This is kind of bizarre and might be another one of those State vs. Federal prisons things.

Every prison I was at had an advisory council and every unit elected representatives to that council.

As ridiculous as it was, the voting was split up by race. There really were black and white representatives. I was actually elected as the "white representative" for my unit when I was at the Saint Louis West level one prison but was moved before my term began.

What Claudette said about someone getting in serious trouble for replacing salt and vinegar chips with unsalted chips could certainly be true. Wardens and the companies change the store lists all of the time so prisoners are pretty used to changes, but if a prisoner in a bad mood finds out they can't get their favorite honey buns, they could come after the unit rep.

At the same time, prison is mostly very boring but often punctuated with bursts of terrible violence and drama. Taking a job like unit rep is a way to break up the boredom.

3. Cook-ups  

Morello (Yael Stone) makes some "loaded" potato chips to build support for her election to the WAC (strange since Red was guaranteeing a victory).

You might be wondering how this works.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, official prison food sucks (I mean really sucks) so most people supplement their official diets with what are affectionately known in prison as "Cook-ups."

So, every few weeks you get a store list (full of grocery items and toiletries) and you can use the money in your prison account to purchase things. If you ever decide to learn more, you can learn the literally thousands of popular combinations people use to make culinary magic out of hot water, ramen noodles, and random ingredients.

I did a good deal of cooking up when I was inside and it was usually a very fun, delicious, and social experience with groups of people combining each other's store ingredients with a really good chef. And yes, quite often, smuggled goodies from the kitchen would make their way into Cook-ups as well.

Cooking is one of the few things that I look back fondly on about prison.

2.  "You've Got To Hit Rock Bottom Before You Know Which Direction To Go"

Nicky has a flashback to Red taking care of her during a detox after Alex (Laura Prepon) asks her why she continues to take Red's shit. During the flashback, Red tells Nicky that she needs to hit rock bottom before she can recover.

I guess, in that particular situation, it wasn't a terrible thing to say at the time...But, I wanted to strongly argue against the notion that "Rock Bottom" is a prerequisite to recovery from addiction.

Sorry, I know "Rock Bottom" thinking is conventional wisdom and carries an almost religious adherence. In my personal opinion, and I have written a book on addiction and recovery, it is an excuse people use to make themselves feel better about being tough on addicts.

Don't just take my word on it, Maia Slavitz (an addiction expert) said in an NPR interview:

"We have this idea that if we are just cruel enough and mean enough and tough enough to people with addiction, that they will suddenly wake up and stop, and that is not the case," 

Anyway, I just feel like it is important to speak truth to power whenever you have the chance.

As Johann Hari put it, "The opposite of addiction isn't sobriety it's connection." I believe that building empathy and understanding are the most critical ingredients to sustained recovery.

1. The Desire To Be Heard

In a sense, the entire "WAC Pack" episode is about the desire for prisoners to be heard and to be afforded the dignity of being heard.

So many prisoners have spent their entire lives being told they would never amount to anything, that they were no good, and constantly reduced to being heard and seen as nothing but "convicts."

One of my favorite things about OITNB is that the prisoners are treated with respect and because you always hear their opinions from their true voices (even when officers try to silence them).

I guess what I am saying is that the show should be very proud of representing even fictional prisoners as real people and not just as caricatures. 

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). 

Since I have not gotten many answers, I will keep the same Comment Question:

"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! 

Okay, I will take this opportunity to push my own book Writing Your Own Best Story: Addiction and Living Hope (since it just came out in paperback).