Orange Is the New Black: Orange Black or Bleak: S2 E5 “Low Self-Esteem City” (Netflix)

Orange, Black, or Bleak S2 E5: “Low Self-Esteem City”

As a formerly incarcerated person, I have decided to do a deep-dive into the Netflix show Orange Is The New Black to help explain some of the things that folks watching the show without a felony background might not catch.

Sorry that I am a little late today, don't write very well when I am tired and last night just wasn't working for me. 

Also, a reminder, I am not covering Season 5 (or watching it) until it is officially released by Netflix. When Season 5 starts, I will start writing contemporary recaps (and I will return to the retro pieces after I finish S5). In other words, I am not rewarding the OITNB hackers.

If you have not watched OITNB before *Spoiler Alert*

5 Things About Season 2 Episode 5 "Low Self-Esteem City"


OITNB S2 E5 "Low Self-Esteem City" is about:

* The backstory of how Gloria Mendoza (Selenis Leyva) ended up incarcerated at Litchfield (Food Stamp Scam).

* The continuing battle between Big Boo (Lea DeLaria) and Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) over who can hook-up with the most people.

* Vee's continuing sly manipulation of the Litchfield population as she maneuvers to take control of the prison.

*  Red's attempt to reconstitute a power base around the greenhouse and the Golden Girls and her continuing singular understanding of what Vee (Lorraine Toussaint) is up to.

* More context on how to understand Healy (Michael Harney) from his wife's loathing to his co-worker's disdain for him. 

* The continuing battle between Caputo (Joe Sandow) and Fig (Alysia Reyner) over budgets and the upkeep of the facility (and the introduction of Caputo's bar-band "side-boob").

5. "Caca"

Look, I have already mentioned how ridiculous I find the whole Fig "embezzlement" subplot but this is getting way out of hand.

Prisoners, believe it or not, have a quasi-legal grievance process which, when exhausted, actually allows them to take a case against a prison (or it's officials) to court. Most likely, after being forced to shower with sewage backup and then told they can only shower for 30 seconds at a time, there would be 100s of grievances filed. 

As I mentioned before, there is no way Fig could cover embezzling enough money to finance her extravagant lifestyle (or her husband's campaign) but even if she could pull that off, the fallout would leave a paper trail of grievances.

And before you dismiss this, a mass of complaints at once screams to the powers that be that something big is about to hit them in the face (and Fig is not the grievance officer and grievances would move through the federal system in an orderly process as they escalate). In addition, every prisoner would talk to their people on the phone about the problem (because prisoners are extreme germaphobes) and those people would start making calls.  

By the way, there would also be all kinds of motions and complaints filed as well. Every prison has a law library and a few jailhouse lawyers (many of whom are surprisingly effective).  

This is just an absurd storyline. 

I am not saying that prisons are well-maintained or that prisoners organize quickly or naturally but I am saying they would never stay quiet about showers that flood with human waste. People take cleanliness very seriously in prison.

4. "You Don't Have Any Friends Sam"

I have a lot of empathy for Sam Healy's problems. He has been emasculated at home and his wife literally loathes him. He is clearly one of those guys who nobody liked in high school and was probably bullied for most of his life (heck, I was one of those guys too until my Senior year).

But, I have no empathy for how Sam processes his frustration, anger, and rage by replacing his lack of control in the rest of his life with the god-like power he can wield over the ladies of Litchfield.

Healy probably wouldn't bother me so much if he weren't a fictional stand-in for so many correctional officers that I met when I was incarcerated.  

Don't get me wrong, there are a TON of great and professional Correctional Officers (If you could ask my good CO's they would tell you that I thanked all of the professional ones personally whenever I left any facility). On the other hand, there are a ton of CO's just like Healy or worse.

At every jail where I was incarcerated there was a brute squad made up of CO's who got into correctional work just so that they could legally beat inmates up. I remember my first day in jail a guy tried to escape and made it to the intake garage before, despite offering zero resistance, he was beaten down by the goon squad. 

When I was transferred for a few days to a different jail (I had charges in two counties) I saw the goon squad beat someone down after an inmate fight that there was enough blood on the ground that it was flowing into my cell.

When I was in prison I saw CO's go out of their way to make inmates time harder, who went out of their way to humiliate and shame them every chance they got, and, of course, there were a ton of racist CO"s too. 

You could almost always tell which CO's were trouble because they often looked roided out or always angry (kind of like some inmates who had anger management issues). Another good tell was if they always were wearing or displaying black gloves (always ready to put them on so they could beat someone down).

Officer Bennett (Matt McGorry) gives an example of how an officer can react with excessive force during "Low Self-Esteem). So often, the maximum amount of force is used (often on purpose) in situations when it is entirely unnecessary.

I am sure many of you assume that you can just avoid the Mendez (Pablo Schreiber) and Healy types and to some extent that is true. However, there are three shifts a day of officers in your unit, and some of those will have control of you at least for a few hours every day and it is unlikely you will only have the good CO's.

In addition, if you happen to get on the wrong side of a CO, they often will go out of their way to find you. 

Of course, the even more dangerous ones, in many ways, are like Healy. These are the officers who won't ever try to physically hurt you but who love to use the power that they have over your life to destroy inmates (usually, like Healy, trying to compensate for the lack of power in the rest of their lives).

I can say with little hesitation, some of the worst things I saw happened as guards either looked the other way (like Healy during the fight between Piper and Doggett), instigated by CO's, or came directly at the hands of CO's. 

When you give someone with violent or fascist tendencies the ability to treat a captive group as sub-human they will often commit worse atrocities than the prisoners they are controlling.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely. 

3. Stop the "Welfare Queen" BS

So, Mendoza ended up in prison because someone snitched about her Food Stamp scam. Of course, the larger part of her backstory was that she is a single mother who was being physically abused by her boyfriend (who then burns up in a voodoo-induced fire).

But, I would like to focus on the Food Stamp part for a few minutes because it has become an issue that is very personal to me.

In the case of Gloria Mendoza, she is running a convenience store where she gives customers a cash payment for their EBT SNAP or Bridge cards and then turns the receipt over to the state in order to get paid back the larger EBT value in cash. 

Yes, it is fraud but, like many of the "scammers" in the real world, she is doing it for good reasons (to create more security for her kids).

Unfortunately, in the real-world food stamp debate, we talk way too much about the scammers and way too little about the people who need and use assistance properly. In other words, we punish the vast majority of food stamp users for a small percentage who misuse food stamps.

And, even worse, many times, these "food stamp gourmands" are totally made up by the marketing arm of Fox News and the Ayn Randian Congressional Caucuses.

And, let's assume these serial haters of the poor are 100% right and poor people use their benefits to buy expensive foods. It doesn't make me mad at all that every once in a great while a poor person buys a lobster with food stamps and has a really amazing meal.

Why in the world do we base policy around the cheaters and not around the real needs of people in our communities?  And don't even get me started on all of the new paternalistic "work requirements for food stamps.

In addition, I am very troubled by the entire misleading (and often racist) "welfare queen" narrative. Where do we as a society get off demonizing the poor from middle-class or rich ivory towers?

More specifically, how often to you hear people complain about corporate welfare recipients not having enough oversight about how they use taxpayer funds? When tax-cuts come down, are rich people castigated for trips to Cannes or for eating lobster with fungible funds?

When oil companies get subsidized during a period of record profitability do we castigate them for celebrating with lobster dinners or pass paternalistic legislation making it nearly impossible for them to use the funds?

When banks get bailed out do we force them to provide an extensive accounting of how they used every dollar?

Well, we do all of that to people applying for food stamps.

When I first got out, I found that despite having run a very successful team and business and despite having twenty years of successful work experience (in higher ed) and a Masters Degree that I couldn't get a job waiting tables.

I am not ashamed to admit that Food Stamps were a bridge between when I started to try to establish my freelance writing business and when I could pay for my own food again.

Once I got to the place where I could afford to pay for my own food again I immediately discontinued my food stamps and went back to what I thought would be a normal life.

One year later, through normal attrition, I lost a few of my best clients and was in pretty rough shape and I decided to apply for food stamps again. Unlike the first time, I was confronted with an absurdly complicated and frustrating set of new application requirements and told that most of the hours I worked (and was not paid for - because entrepreneur) trying to establish new business or writing for free did not count and that I only qualified for $17 a month in food stamps.

And I am not alone, food stamps have been drastically cut back for anyone who is not married with children.

And despite all of this, believe it or not, I had it good.

In the mid-1990's Bill Clinton passed a "Welfare Reform" package (PRWORA). One aspect of that so-called "reform" package was to ban anyone who had a drug felony from getting food stamps at all.

In Michigan and many other states, that prohibition is still enforced.

And let's not forget that food stamps work to help people get back on their feet. In particular, benefits are CRITICAL for formerly incarcerated people who have a very hard time finding work and housing upon release. 

If you are wondering why you should care:

* People pay their debt to society when they serve their sentences, discrimination is wrong.

* Economic insecurity is a prime (maybe the prime) cause of recidivism

* Also, and I mean this with respect, fuck anyone who thinks people should not be allowed to eat (even so-called lazy people should have food). If we stand for letting people starve, we are a cruel, amoral, and uncivilized society (the same is true about health care).

Okay, rant over. I guess the OITNB paint is that I am okay with Gloria running a food stamp scam to try to improve her children's lives. Why do we admire rich people who break the rules to get ahead (see the President of the United States and his history of using bankruptcy and tax laws to benefit himself) but excoriate poor people for similar behaviors? Cut the hypocrisy.

Low Self-Esteem City indeed.

2. "The Secret Is To Pretend That Salt Is Sugar"

Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) comments that you can pretend that salt is sugar to make prison food taste better (she says this in the context of the latina's over-salting the black girl's food on purpose). 

* The kitchen might not be able to do this to anyone in a Michigan prison because we had to purchase our own salt, pepper, and spice on the commissary list. The food is usually not seasoned (they claim this is to protect people with food allergies etc.).

* No amount of pretending would make most prison foods taste good. I still have nightmares about Salisbury Steak days and it has been almost four years since I was released.

1. Furlough

Piper (Taylor Schilling) finds out that her beloved Grandmother has died and she approaches Healy to see if she can get a furlough.

In my experience, they do give furloughs, or at least something like furloughs, when a family member dies. 

I was lucky enough to never have a family member die when I was in prison but I had friends in prison who got furloughed to go to a funeral (I think it has to be an immediate family member).

On the other hand, these were prisoners whose family lived in-state and when they were granted furlough they were driven to the funeral under guard and were cuffed (they certainly did not get to go on their own recognizance).

I suspect since most of my family lives in a different state, I would have been SOL. Thank God I never had to face this problem. I suspect this is one of those differences between Federal and State prisons given that these ladies are all at the lowest possible security level.

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). 

Also, RIP Chris Cornell!

Today's Comment Question is:

"What Issue Raised by Orange is the New Black Angers You The Most?" 

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

Today's book is Joe Soss's book "Disciplining The Poor"