Orange is the New Black (OITNB) is the hit American comedy series currently ruling Netflix. The dynamic characters and the show’s plot have started up the controversial topics surrounding female prisons and their goings on.
Jessica Van Deventer
If you haven’t signed-up to Netflix and binge-watched all three seasons of OITNB over a long weekend whilst your friends are out taking “selfies” and licking their spilt drink off some bar counter, then your first world life is not complete.
Orange is the New Black is the new Netflix series by Jenji Kohan that has been airing since 2003, it gives a new insight into what prison life is like in a minimum security penitentiary for a woman, based on the life events and memoir: “Orange is the New Black- My year in a woman’s prison” by Piper Kerman. If you indeed are an avid watcher of the show you would have gone through many of the heart-wrenching yet hilarious episodes that have you questioning your own prejudices and your opinions of many governmental systems.
Whilst this show is set in America, it’s stories’ are relatable to many countries all over the world, with issues of over-population, drug smuggling, explicit violence and pregnant mothers carrying their child to term whilst behind bars. All common, so to watch this show it can be an eye-opener into why women land up behind bars and how they deal with it.
As I have learnt, thanks to the show, black and white, right and wrong, are things that cannot be determined. They’re merely an opinion and it is in fact the grey areas, the interesting bits, the human parts of life that can tell you the best part of the story and the rest… well that’s up to you to decide. I began watching the show and learnt this quickly. Each show begins with the background story, flashbacks, of a different individual in the prison and how they got to where they are and each and every time – without fail, I have judged the person badly on their behaviour and the crime they have committed, but it is once the show explores their story and shows just how they got to where they are that you’re able to fully understand that they’re not bad people, they’ve just had bad things happen to them.
For most, may it be smuggling, stealing or just protesting in a prohibited area, they have been led to their crimes by men they are dating or by simply being on the streets with no other choice, violence at home, mental illness or drug abuse. Women inmates have increased by 800% whilst male inmates have increased by half of that since the 1980’s. As sentencing laws have changed in the U.S so minor offences and drug related offences which, before could be settled with mental health/Rehabilitation treatment and community service, have increased the number of incarcerations. Most of these women as represented accurately in the show, are in fact not a threat to the public but just need a helping hand and some guidance in life. Throughout the show you learn of the inmate’s stories and find out that whilst most crimes were for love or fear, the rest were accidents or women with nowhere to go. It begs to question, should the focus be on rehabilitation, recovery and finding a place for the lost soul in society.
In some of the stories, issues of institutionalisation, lack of support and poverty have led the inmates to either return to their old habits, commit suicide or ultimately land up back in prison as it’s the only place that they know. As it is, U.S prisons are severely understaffed and underfunded, so to look to them to solve this would not be the course of action, but instead a change in mindset of the people could open this wide up and expose it for the ugly, gaping hole in society that it is. Instead of finding out what an inmate is good at doing, the inmate is forced to find 3 job interviews a week and has to go through the rejection constantly due to their criminal record even though they have served their time.
A cycle is caused. 75% of women incarcerated are not only mothers but are the only carer for their children. Women prisons are sparse in America and often the mother loses contact with her family whilst in prison as the distance is too far. This is not a system built to rehabilitate and create a flourishing society, these women need to be helped, not locked up.
This is why I love the show. This is why I faked being ill for four days straight over a long weekend, so that I could watch every episode of every season. It was because, my judgements of each and every character changed completely once I got to know them and the strengths and weaknesses they possesed and the fronts they put up to hide them. I found myself caring and routing for a bunch of inmates. That’s when I realised, these women aren’t bad, they’re just real and bare and so strong. They’ve been dealt a raw hand in life. I admired them all for the struggles that they had gone through and for how they had pulled through…at all. For I would’ve been found curled up in a ball having given up.
Human nature, it is a powerful thing, something not to be quashed but rather nourished. To lock up a woman for allowing her boyfriend to sell weed in their back room so that she can afford to take her baby for his injections, is not a danger to a society, but rather a victim of it. If not prison, then what do we do to keep society safe… and well that, is a whole other kettle of fish.