I think we can all agree that Netflix has released some stellar shows in recent years, with Making a Murderer in 2015 and of course, this year’s Stranger Things. But before any of us had even heard of these shows, there was one that instantaneously captured the internet by storm; Orange Is The New Black.
The show focuses on a women’s prison, the fictional Litchfield Penitentiary. At first, it follows the life of Piper Chapman as she’s sent to prison after her money laundering past catches up with her. We’re shown the hardships she faces, the various conflicts between her and the other inmates, her struggle to become adjusted to her life as a prisoner. All of that is well and good, and makes for a brilliant start to the show. Sooner or later, however, we become properly introduced to the other inmates; we learn of their lives before prison, their childhoods, the crimes that got them jailed. We get to see their conflicts, the struggles that they must face and the sheer turbulence that some live through on a daily basis. With some perspective, we realise that Piper isn’t the only one with problems.
Time after time, we watch Nicky as she succumbs to her drug addiction. We’re shown Daya as she flounders with her prison pregnancy. We see the countless atrocities committed by the prison guards towards many of the inmates, and the untold shortcomings of the prison system. We look on as Jimmy is ‘compassionately’ released with severe dementia, with nowhere to go and nobody to look after her. We see Poussey die, Sophia sent to solitary for all the wrong reasons, and Suzanne manipulated over and over again, by inmates and guards alike. We’re shown suicide, murder and rape, the majority of which ironically occur inside the prison. Conflicts constantly arise between the different cliques, with various members committing assault, blackmail and smuggling all out of loyalty to their group. We’re shown horrifying things happening to some of the most vulnerable people, and it’s all too real.
That’s what’s so important about Orange Is The New Black. Yes, its depiction of women becoming empowered against all the odds is brilliant, and you can be sure that that subject deserves its own article. But the brutal, raw scenes of palpable horror that happens regularly in our reality? That’s what’s important. As law-abiding citizens, we don’t really know what prison is like. We rest easy, blissfully unaware of exactly what goes on behind bars. And perhaps OITNB doesn’t tell us the full story, but it at least gives us an idea. It gives us a glimpse into the cruelty that can, and inevitably does happen in prison. It makes us aware of what could be going on; not to actors, but to very real people. It refuses to shy away from the stories that need to be told.
Watching this show forces us to recognise that prisoners aren’t just numbers or soulless husks, despite what MCC might think. By showing us the inmate’s childhoods, adolescent years or simply the events leading up to their crimes, we stop labelling them simply as criminals; we acknowledge that they are nothing less than human, all with their individual goals, wishes and desires. Love blossoms between Soso and Poussey, Maria is desperate to be reunited with her young daughter and from a young age, Watson has been an exceptionally gifted track star. We find ourselves hoping that the prisoners will be released sooner rather than later, because their lives shouldn’t have to end with prison.
If there’s one thing that OITNB makes perfectly clear, it’s that the show’s prisoners were rarely born criminals; for the most part, they were made. Many of them were born into troubled families, only to grow up and replicate their parent’s actions or behaviour. Others simply ended up getting in with the wrong crowd, making childish mistakes and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Others took the fall, or had it forced upon them, and of course, some have a less than clean bill of mental health. Above all, the show stresses that crime isn’t just a matter of good people who abide by the law, and bad people who don’t. This is incredibly important in a world that is never quite that black and white.
I’m not saying there should be no consequence for crime, petty or not. When the law is broken, there has to be some kind of repercussion, and it’s generally accepted that those who break the law will lose their liberties and go to prison, at least for some time. Perhaps that is right, and in OITNB going to prison certainly causes some of the inmates to better appreciate life on the outside. What I am saying is that while prisoners are inside, every action should be taken to prevent them from becoming a product of the system. Too many people are imprisoned, then churned out, only to be jailed once again because a life of crime is all they know to turn to. If prisoners have a chance of being released, they should be given every opportunity to be able to make it on the outside.
Watching OITNB may not make us experts on the subject of justice, and it certainly doesn’t mean we know exactly what prison life is like. But it does educate us, if only a little, and that’s important. The message that the show sends out is loud, clear and heard by millions all around the world. It asks us to step back from the labels we place upon prisoners and consider that there’s more to them than their crime and the resulting prison sentence. It asks us to consider the shortcomings of the justice system, of prisons and of the guards that patrol them. It asks us to open our eyes, to become aware of just how ignorant we might have been before. Above all, it asks us to remember that prisoners are people too.