A Former Prisoner On What “Orange Is The New Black” Gets Right — And What It Doesn’t

Jenji Kohan, the creator of Netflix’s new hit series Orange Is The New Black, had to grapple with a pretty serious conundrum: How do you make a compulsively watchable series about a milieu whose defining characteristic is boredom? And yet, the show’s writers have pulled it off.

Of course, they have had to take some liberties; the series is based on Piper Kerman’s memoir but is highly fictionalized. So what did they get right about prison life, and what did they miss?

Though my year in federal prison was quite unlike Piper Kerman’s — largely on account of the differences between men’s and women’s prisons — here’s my assessment of where Orange nailed it and where it missed the mark.

Here’s what they get right:

Small things can have outsize consequences — in positive and negative ways.

A tiny slight or infraction in prison can lead to serious problems. Piper’s offhand remark about the quality of prison cooking leads to Red starving her out for two weeks, and her vaguely dirty dancing with Alex leads to the SHU (Special Housing Unit — solitary confinement). I can verify this; I saw a guy get slocked — struck by a sock wrapped around a padlock — for cutting in line. Kissinger once said that in academia, “the battles are so bitter because the stakes are so small,” and that is doubly true in prison.
Conversely, given the general privation, the smallest kindness in prison can go a long way. Piper’s creation of medicated lotion for Red’s back gets her right with Red and affords her renewed access to food; a few donuts from Counselor Healy, who oversees the Women’s Advocacy Council (WAC) are seen by most WAC members as a major coup. One of my main strategies to stay safe (I came in at 117 pounds) was to quietly give stolen tomatoes and onions to certain powerful inmates, which effectively helped me build critical alliances. I never dreamed that a bruised tomato might help save my life.

If boredom is one defining feature of prison life, then ingenuity is the other.

From Sophia’s stylish silver shower shoes made from duct tape and Morello’s Kool-Aid as mascara/lip gloss to the hooch at Tricia’s Irish wake, prisoners learn to make do with less. This echoes my experience.
I saw inmates cut hair with toenail clippers (no pimped-out full-service salons like Sophia’s!), cook grilled cheese with a laundry room iron, and fashion free weights from massive boulders in laundry bags and tied around a bar.

People antagonize enemies just before their antagonists’ release dates.

When Big Boo goads ex-“wife” Mercy as Mercy prepares for the door, it is not a coincidence. Inmates with ample time left often do this as a way of luring their enemies into fights in hopes that staff will write up the enemy and revoke her “good time,” causing a longer stay, probably in the SHU or at a higher security prison. Happened to me — I got cold-cocked in a basketball game, in which friendly inmates had urged me not to play — just days before my release. Luckily for me, I couldn’t retaliate: I was unconscious.

Here’s what they get wrong — or at least, here are things that are very different in men’s prisons:

The racial divide is even more stark.

In Orange, the races eat together, which was exceptionally rare at the Kentucky prison where I spent 2010. I did it my first week when I was the only white guy in my cell block and didn’t know any other whites; an Aryan Brotherhood member pulled me aside later that day and advised me not to do so again.

Snitching is a much bigger deal.

First, a defendant who named another defendant in a case (Alex and Piper) likely wouldn’t be incarcerated together out of concern for retribution attempts. Obviously, though, Alex’s presence is critical to the plot.
Second, Larry’s radio appearance probably would’ve destroyed her. It’s likely that her comments about Crazy Eyes and Miss Claudette would’ve sparked far more intense and widespread anger than they did. Also, given Piper’s obvious willingness to spill beans and her placement on the WAC by Healy, most inmates would’ve likely concluded (correctly) that Piper tipped COs off to the phone and (incorrectly) that she was culpable for other snitching. Once someone is labeled a prison snitch, his life is essentially over — not just over for a day.

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