Why Orange is the New Black

Photo courtesy of Netflix Inc

Photo courtesy of Netflix Inc

By Theresa Wells

To be honest I have not been a huge fan of television in recent years. Various series have come and gone, becoming wildly popular in some circles but passing me by, as they didn’t catch my interest. A couple of months ago, though, a friend suggested I check out a Netflix original series because they thought I would like it, but they were wrong. I loved it instead.

“Orange is the New Black” is not the series for you if you are easily offended by explicit language or explicit sexuality. In fact it might not be for you even if you aren’t easily offended as it can be quite graphic, the story of a young white middle-class woman who winds up in an American federal penitentiary for a decades-old drug smuggling offense. It is raw and intense and, in my mind, brilliant.

You see one can watch the series for pure entertainment, but as a writer there is so much more depth to it. The character development, the interweaving of stories of the inmates’ past with their present existence, the way the story unfolds – it’s all almost lyrical to a writer. When you couple it with some understanding of the failings of own federal jail system it begins to take on new layers.

The reality is that penitentiary systems, whether American or Canadian, are deeply flawed in some regard. I think we still struggle with how to treat those we have found guilty of minor criminal activity, particularly if they suffer from some level of mental illness but perhaps not severe enough to warrant incarceration in a facility designed for criminals who are mentally ill. You end up with a number of people inside our prisons who suffer from some level of mental dysfunction, along with those who have arrived with substance abuse issues, histories of being abused as children or adults in domestic situations, and all the other ills that plague us as people. Then you take all these people and place them into an institution, hoping that their time there will somehow reform them and they will turn away from the behaviour that landed them in jail in the first place.

I think perhaps the most poignant aspect of Orange is the New Black is the fact that every inmate has a story. For some the story is fairly black and white, while for others it is deeply nuanced with every shade of grey. But every single one of them has a story, and a reason they have ended up in Litchfield Penitentiary, the place where an orange jumpsuit defines them as prisoners.

How often do we think about the fact that every single person in our prisons has a story? Some of them are, without a doubt, guilty of crimes but there is a story behind those crimes, and behind their lives. They are not, and should not be, romanticized, but the stories are there, and they form the background of the people who now reside behind bars, doing their time before they are released and join us once again.

The reality is I suspect few of us give much thought to those who are housed in our prisons. We don’t think much about prison life, and about how it might be reforming – or not reforming – those who reside in those places of incarceration. We don’t often discuss if prison should even be reformative or if it should be punitive. In fact, like death, we don’t often discuss prison at all, making it seem like yet another taboo subject we are afraid to touch lest it seep into our own lives somehow.

I admit I know little about prisons, except what I have been told by some who have worked inside them. On occasion I read stories about prison gone wrong, when inmates have died or when prison riots occur. But about the real situation inside prisons in Canada? It is a murky world for me, and I suspect for most of us as we simply don’t think about it unless for some reason someone we love – or ourselves – end up inside one.

That is what happened to Piper Kerman, you see, the real woman behind the true story of Orange is the New Black – because the series isn’t some made up fantasy but is instead based on Kerman’s experiences in prison. She was the nice middle-class white girl who ended up in a women’s penitentiary, and when she was released she wrote about her experience so that others, like me, who had never even given it much thought could get a glimpse of that world.

“Orange is the New Black” is brilliant television, provocative and funny and compelling – but it’s even more than that. It has made me start learning about the Canadian penitentiary system, proving that pop culture entertainment can sometimes do just a bit more than entertain. It can be the gateway drug into education.

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