What You Won’t See on Orange Is the New Black

Screen shot 2015-07-13 at 5.10.55 PMWhen I heard that Piper Kerman wrote the book Orange is the New Black about her experience at the Danbury, Connecticut federal prison camp, I was excited. I served part of my 15-year sentence with her and I found the book an accurate snapshot of Danbury FPC. (Full disclosure: I am “Esposito” in Piper’s book.)

When I learned that there would be a Netflix series based on OITNB, I couldn’t wait to watch it. I stopped watching it early on in the second season though, because sadly, the series doesn’t reflect the women in the camp as I know them.

For example, the visiting room scenes do not adequately portray the pain that permeates the room as mothers and their children are forced to sit side-by-side and not touch or comfort each other. The Bureau of Prisons used to hold a family day where children and their parents could spend hours together in a less restrictive environment and touch and play. This humane visitation day has since been cancelled by the BOP.

The series doesn’t show how many nonviolent women who were given harsh mandatory-minimum sentences are denied the right to become mothers because their childbearing years were stolen from them. The series doesn’t show how a male gynecologist was so rough giving pelvic exams to women who had not been sexually active in years that women refused PAP smears because of the pain he inflicted.

The series doesn’t show how in 2013, despite the BOP’s “mission” of keeping people in prison within 500 miles from their homes, the BOP decided to shut down the only federal correctional institution for women in the northeast to convert it to a male prison. The women were being sent to Alabama—over 1,100 miles away. My website, Reentry Central, broke the news nationally and a furor arose among senators, judges and the public. Most of the incarcerated women who were citizens in the northeast were then sent to federal holding facilities in New York and Philadelphia that were designed to hold people going to court, not those with sentences. The lack of outdoor recreation and programming, including participation in a drug program that allows a woman to receive a year off her sentence, have been decried by politicians who have repeatedly asked the BOP when the promised new northeast institution for women will be built. The projected date is now 2016.

Neither does the series show the real solidarity among women behind bars. When a woman is called to see the chaplain, automatically women will drift to her, and walk with her as far as they are allowed, because they know she is going to be told of the death of a loved one. They will be waiting to escort her back to her bunk and will stay with her or give her the space she needs. Women risk being sent to SHU for bringing back milk, fruit and vegetables from the chow hall to give to a pregnant woman. When the new mother comes back to the camp or prison without her baby, women are there to greet her with hugs. Women will carry an ailing woman up the stairs to the sick call room. There is a strong sense of sisterhood at Danbury that the series ignores.

The series provides a lot of sex scenes. While there is certainly sex in prison, it is nowhere near as rampant as the series makes it out to be. There are penalties to be paid for being caught having sex. Some of the staff are extremely homophobic and will separate couples by sending one woman to another facility.

The ACLU points out that the U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population, but according to ABC News:

  • America incarcerates 30 percent of the world’s female prisoners.
  • Every day, 174 new women are incarcerated in the U.S.
  • 63 percent of female prisoners are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses.

I know the series is meant to be entertaining, but the mass incarceration of women isn’t a joke. OITNB offers an unparalleled opportunity to help change national opinion about the rapidly increasing numbers of women being incarcerated in the United States today. The OITNB scriptwriters have a chance to help stop this growing tragedy. The real stories about the real women on which OITNB is based are sad, compelling and nationally significant. OITNB viewers need to hear them.

Photo from the launch of Real Women Real Voices courtesy of the author. All of the women pictured served time at Danbury and are now free.

Screen shot 2015-07-13 at 5.10.41 PM

Beatrice Codianni is the managing editor of Reentry Central, a national website on criminal justice reform and community reintegration. She is a founding member of Real Women Real Voices, a grassroots organization made up of formerly incarcerated women who seek to educate the public about the collateral consequences of America’s mass incarceration of women.

Comments

  1. Thank you for writing this. I am a fan of the show, but I have often wondered how much they hype certain aspects of it and exaggerate to make it “entertaining.” Thank you for your work on behalf of reforming the system and the women who have experienced incarceration and re-entering society.

  2. You are asking and awful lot of a TV show. The show is revolutionary for being about women in prison in the first place! Of course, if the show was as miserable as prison, no one would watch it. As a huge fan of the show, I can tell it is entertaining, but it also makes you think about people who are largely absent in the media. I think the show does portray the difficulties of incarcerated mothers, and they talk about young women losing the prime of their life to prison. They also show the important bonds that connect these women as they support one another through the terrible ordeal. This season the prison was scheduled for closing and they talked about how the inmates would be moved too far away for their families to visit (luckily a private contractor stepped in). Finally – everyone on TV is having way more sex than most of us.

  3. I hope the script writers of OITNB will heed your important letter. (I’m sure you have sent them a copy, since you’re such a clear critic.) I wish you well. Oh, and one more thing… what happens to the children of the women while their moms are in prison should be part of the story. I give workshops about young children of prisoners…we have 3 million of them in this country, and they are doing time right along with their parents.

  4. A small word of encouragement to the author: I currently watch and enjoy the show all while taking it with a grain of salt. I have also read the book. I would not have read the book had it not been for the first season of the show. And the book opened my very sheltered eyes to the corruption and sheer number of women being imprisoned, especially for non- violent offenses. I’m not sure I would have been aware of the situation had I not started with the series. Now I can be an informed citizen and spread the word, start real conversations, and being an advocate or at least a more empathetic person for women in the prison system.

  5. Shannon Ferguson says:

    I am sorry that your experience has been misrepresented and I hope the series brings some of your issues into future episodes. However, the important thing to remember is that the show is a catylst for your message to be heard. I, like many, picked this article to read because I am a fan of OITNB, so it is important that you continue to write and speak out about the reality of prison life.

  6. Aurora o Rivera says:

    Yes I agree there’s alot of pieces missing in orange is the new black is very heart breaking living in there and having kids the visits are not like shown I thank God I had no kids at the time of my incarceration cause I would’ve forever be broken

  7. Anna Braun says:

    Hear hear. I read the oitnb book after watching and enjoying the first two seasons. After reading the book I was a bit disappointed in the show, but not enough that I didn’t want to watch the third season.

    After the third season I’m done. Episode 3.10 with rape-as-plot-device was too much for me, and the characters aren’t all that interesting now that I know that they are not based on the book. I know Piper Kerman is still a consultant on the show so I know that some of it could be loosely real, but it seems so farfetched now that it feels more exploitative than expository.

  8. Chelsea says:

    I agree that the second season seems more like a soap oprah than a prison story. I hope the writers of OITNB read this article and strive to convey the realities of real prison life for women as the author describes. The way prison and jail purposely dehumanize people. In a very small example, the women at the local jail (small Gunnison, CO where around 3-7 low offender women can be housed) are given 1 change of underwear a week. This is just plain meanness. I applaud the author!

    • That’s why when I went and served time in the Texas Department of Corrections, I began an organization with my father. Secretly, I snuck out numbers of women who had never been to commissary. Having an attorney for a father helps to get, “LEGAL MAIL” out and sealed without inspection.

      Today we have helped since 2009, over 5000 women with $35.00 every six months that they might purchase pantres, tampons, hygiene items that are not provided to the indigent ladies. Not even tooth powder.

      Through Amazon Smiles, every purchase gives you an opportunity to donate .05% of your purchase to our organization.

      Verifiable through the a Secretary of a the a State of a Texas, a 501 (c) non profit organization. In Nederland standing. Believe me, I didn’t a lot of time in the hole being a good Samaritan. A very worth while stay. It didn’t break my spirit as hard as they tried, and even when my mom died and they took my journals, my legal letters, my certificate from the SOS, my mother’s will…. They made me pay dearly, but the couldn’t kill my dream.

      sisterdofjesus.org (our website is being rebuilt due to a fake non profit company charityblossoms.org receiving monies claiming to be us along with other charities.)

      Sisters of Jesus
      PO Box 670331
      Dallas, Texas 75367

    • I lived in Gunnison for many years! Nice to see feminist media follower mention it 😉

  9. True enough…Hollywood bastardizes reality and gives glory to the grim reality of incarceration.
    It was interesting to hear the truth and therefore the less glam version. My mothers’ lover spent nine years in P4W (Kingston Penitentiary for Women) – for failing to turn states evidence, so was given the exact sentence as her boyfriend who held up a gas bar at gunpoint. She shared very little of her life in the Big House, but she came out hardened and untrusting. Because her nickname was Red, I was excited about the series as well (anticipating the unspoken life, filling in a few of the gaps that left a whole in this woman’s life). Clearly, fantasy abounded and Piper’s stretch much glorified,..

  10. ktskny@aol.com says:

    I believe people should know the truth and I want to thank Beatrice for setting the record straight prison for women (mothers) is not something to be down played or glorified hats off to the woman that wrote OITNB but shame on Netflix for twisting it hopefully (the Netflix series)doesn’t curtail them (the State) from making a new more humane facility.

  11. Thank you for writing this. It put a whole new light on the Orange show and also about the real story of women in prison. Now what can we do?

  12. BJ Menter says:

    Really well written and informative commentary. Unfortunately, the American public likes their ‘reality’ a little less real, and a lot more exaggerated. I have personally long been concerned about not allowing mothers in prison to hold, touch, comfort, and contact their children in order to maintain and forge stronger bonds. We increase the risk of these children growing up un-tethered to a sense of family, of being loved, as well as increase their chances of acting up/out and committing crimes themselves and being absorbed into the prison system. The entire prison system in this country needs to be overhauled, including changes in staffing and staff training, as well as balancing rehabilitation correction against punitive retaliation. Anyway – I digress. Thank you again for the well written article.

  13. Susan M Plake says:

    Unfortunately,most viewers of programs related to being arrested and incarceration reflects violence and the more unrealistic identity of a human being. .especially women. No one truly cares unless effected or affected. The portrayal of reality can be iin documentary form or hopefully programs like yours.

  14. Thanks for sharing the reality you have known. I hope you will write to the show and ask them to feature more of that reality. They did show the fear surrounding transfers and hardship it would cause to family relationships on one of the seasons.

  15. Dorothy Loutfy says:

    I applaud these women for writing their opinions. I have read Piper’s book and find it very believable and illuminating. I applaud Piper’s efforts to help organize and help women who are prisoners, to make their stories known and if the show was sensationalized, I hope its purpose was to bring attention and entertainment so that people would be attracted to watching it, and thus become aware of the hideous problems associated with the unjust and inhumane punishment of women. I am afraid, though, that the privatization of prison administration makes Prison for Profit a hideous new way to make a lot of money by making a lot of women suffer. This should be ended NOW! Is there an organization to which I could write that is working on this? I would like to help end this unnecessary and unjust torture of human beings.

  16. Dorothy Loutfy says:

    Okay, where is my lengthy comment?

  17. Just like the show Weeds a big bite.

  18. Fran C. says:

    My husband and I have been discussing that the first season focused on ‘hazing’ that a new person gets. Which maybe true to the (former) main character’s experience. I say former, because in the 2nd season, I think it became much more of an ensemble than it was originally. Into the third season, we definitely see the women mourn with and for each other and for the life that could have been, care for those that are ill and in crisis, and we even see how those in prison administration are trapped. This third season has given us a chance to see the ills of privatization of the prison system. Just watch episode 35 to see a pretty damning portrayal of how people are viewed as a commodity once a money making machine takes over- one that has no interest in rehabilitation of people, because that would reduce reoffender rates. I’m glad they’ve taken the time to discuss this, and am interested to see more.

    I know it may not hit all marks, but I’m not sure any television show can do that. As an educator, I’ve seen dramas about the public school system that unveil some of the stories, but not all. I assume shows about the health care system and legal system hit on some points, but can’t cover all the drama completely.

  19. I am happy you shared your story and I think it’s very important that the stories of incarcerated people are heard and understood. OITNB is far from perfect and the some parts of it are annoying. But would I rather have a world without that show? No way! It has been groundbreaking and perhaps more realistic than any before it, humanizing people who are incarcerated in a way that most of the general public has never had access to. Keep the truth coming: the real truth (your’s the other non-fiction accounts), as well as righteous dramatized versions that push the public’s understanding further than it was before.

  20. Hi,

    Really interesting to read your review of the series, having yourself been a prison inmate.

    I have not read the book on which the series OITNB is based, but your opinion makes me think that it is rather accurate. But you do not like the series version.

    I have never been an inmate (hopefully never will), but I have to say the series has really made me have a deeper sensitivity towards a subject and a marginalized group of women I would have never really thought about, were it not for the series.

    I guess from that perspective, making people aware of this, is already an achievement. Of course, most likely a good part of the story has to be “softened”, to keep the audience, but honestly, I think the series in general is harsh enought for us to imagine how harsher the original story probably is. I particularly liked one of the last episodes of season 3 where they show how the transgender woman is in the end just as unjustly discriminated because she is not a “real” woman.

    I think the greatest achievement of the series (or the book) is to humanize most of the characters in prison, and season 3 did (in my opinion) a good job, as it showed a lot of the real background of most of the characters, telling the audience that the inmates had, of course, a “normal” life before ending up in prison.

    I think the series also shows with a grain of acid irony the always disgusting side of bureaucracy and power, and how this affects human beings who are the last ones to be taken into consideration by the corresponding authorities, though luckily the world is not always black and white, and you always have good people even among those who hold the power.

    I personally look forward to seeing more episodes of this series, or any other similar series that helps raise awareness about female (or male) inmates. Just like other similarly “inaccurate” series raised awareness about other issues (I am thinking of “The L Word”).

  21. Alyson B says:

    At least season 2 shows the problems with the privatization of prisons.

  22. It started diverging from reality once it ran out of material from the book. Litchfield diverged from FCI Danbury in that it was privatized (with the decline in quality) while IRL the women in Danbury were shipped to Alabama. I guess they didn’t want to change the setting so drastically, so the producers chose to have the prison privatized instead.

  23. BTW Piper Kerman wrote an op-ed to the New York Times criticizing the move from Danbury.

    Shortly after it opened FCI Aliceville was struck by a tornado. I’m hoping that the prison was properly built with tornadoes in mind…

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