We Live in a Primitive Time, Don't We? "Orange is the New Black"

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We Live in a Primitive Time, Don't We? "Orange is the New Black"

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | TV Reviews | August 1, 2013 | Comments ()


There have been a lot of articles praising “Orange is the New Black”, its characterization of a wide and diverse range of people who are rarely portrayed on television, not the least of which are lesbians and the transgender people.. As has been observed in other articles, it’s just a plain smartly written show, managing that balance of rendering characters as imperfect without making them unsympathetic, and without turning their flaws into twee little affectations with no real downside.

There are also those who see either too much or just enough of “Weeds” in the series. Piper does indeed have some selection of the tics and quirks that eventually made Nancy Botwin a terrible character, but thus far they are in check.

But there are a couple other parts of the show that make it far more interesting to me. This is a minimum security prison, which was a wise choice for the story. And I say choice deliberately, knowing full well that the series is based on a memoir. They could have simply chosen something different to adapt, or they could have changed whatever they wanted in the adaptation. Just because the source material didn’t have a choice in certain elements, doesn’t mean that the showrunners don’t make the choices every step of the way. Just wanted to get that out there.

The show depicts the poor and uneducated as actual human beings, and more to the point as people who have made choices to be where they are. Their choices may have sucked, their opportunities may have been lousy, but they were still their choices. A lot of shows patronize the poor by making them the victims of their circumstance, taking away any agency they might have. And there is almost invariably the character who coulda been a contenda, if only they had been given a chance. That latter character is the one that so much fiction settles on, but that character so often works as a crutch to avoid actually looking at the tragedy. It lets you lapse into thinking that the tragedy is the brilliant kid who doesn’t get to be a scientist instead of the systemic tragedy of life at the bottom.

Look, there are always going to be people at the bottom. The tragedy isn’t that there are deadend jobs, most jobs are deadends from that perspective. The tragedy is that depending on your parents’ socioeconomic status, your deadend job either gets you making a line of soaps at Barneys or it involves you making meth in your kitchen. It’s not the brilliant kids who can’t get out that are the tragedy, they’re only a symptom of the fact that there is something to get out of in the first place.

And that’s one way that “Orange is the New Black” really succeeds, by using prison as an equalizer, as a bulldozer of “there if not for the grace of god”. I really loathed Piper’s fiance for most of the season, and rolled my eyes at her stupid business of high end bath products, her obsession with keeping touch with the business by the prison phones. They had to make them worthless yuppies who can’t just get a fucking job, didn’t they? But that there is a distinct choice. Give them real jobs and the foil falls apart. See, they’re no different than the inmates in category, no different than the boyfriend on the outside scamming in order to make rent, while the girl on the inside makes calls about moving drugs on the outside. The only difference is that the exact same capabilities and contextual life choices lead to a condo with one group and prison for the other.

One criticism leveled at the show is how every character has a perfectly good reason for being in prison, that there are almost no actually bad people in there. Even the murderer killed a rapist who had it coming. Surely someone in federal prison deserves to be there, right? Well, in one of the most confusing figures you’ll read today: only 7% of federal prisoners are in for violent crimes, and for female prisoners that proportion is even less. So yeah, minimum security might not be filled with a church choir group, but it’s not going to be freaking Oz either.

Which gets us to the diatribe that the show inevitably leads us towards. How the hell has our prison population multiplied by 20 in the last thirty years, while our population has only increased by 50%? You can quote figures all day, figures that just don’t seem right. We imprison more people in absolute and relative terms than anyplace else on the planet, including places where wearing a skirt or criticizing the government gets you shot. One in thirty adult Americans are either in prison, on parole, or on probation. The Chinese still have concentration camps and yet they criticize our human rights record with a straight face.

There’s a mindboggling sense of waste to it, once you look past the social injustice of it all. One can get into an existential meltdown over what the point of locking up all these people actually has. I’m not agitating for an expansion of prison labor, but there’s something galling about taking so many of your citizens out of freedom and just telling them to sit there for year and painful year. It reminds me of the closing lines of Red Dragon: “We live in a primitive time, don’t we, Will? Neither savage nor wise. Half measures are the curse of it. Any rational society will either kill me or put me to some use.”

“Orange is the New Black” with its gaze at the stuff of bureaucratic nightmares, when your every minute is determined by bored and dull-souled pushers of forms and rules, forces a look at just how irrational of a society we have decided to be.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • doctormaybe

    "One criticism leveled at the show is how every character has a perfectly good reason for being in prison, that there are almost no actually bad people in there."

    What moron said that? Very FEW of them have "perfectly good" reasons. Just because someone is sympathetic (say, Vicky) or charming (say, Alex) or both (like Laverne) doesn't mean that they have "perfectly good" reasons for being in prison. Laverne, Vicky, and Alex (ESPECIALLY Alex) all did stupid, selfish, and, some cases, destructive things, and did them with deliberation and purpose. To anyone who thinks these people have "perfectly good" reasons for being in prison, here's a pro tip: wanting something is not a "perfectly good" reason to commit a crime to get it. To anyone who knows someone who thinks these people have "perfectly good" reasons for being in prison - watch your valuables.

  • Berry

    I could be wrong (it's been known to happen) but I'd hazard a guess that people who said that want to see criminals portrayed as somehow fundamentally bad, even evil, people who do bad things just because. Because they're bad.

    I'm having really hard time expressing myself here, but they say there are "almost no actually bad people in there" meaning that there are no mustache swirling, irredeemable villains. Or whatever the female version of mustache swirling is. An inmate being even slightly sympathetic muddies the issue for people who want to believe that prisons are full of monsters. Of course not being a monster doesn't make anyone a saint either, but if your world-view is very black and white, it might as well.

    It's a bit similar to something you see in conversation about real life crimes as well. Say someone's been accused of murder they didn't commit, but they're nevertheless convicted. Almost inevitably in conversations about cases like that you'll hear people arguing that the falsely convicted person is "bad" so they deserved what they got. Maybe they didn't murder, but they were otherwise violent or sold drugs or whatever. In other words, a person would have to be perfectly innocent to deserve justice. You're either a monster or a saint. If you're a monster, nothing you do can be right. You can't be shown to be a person with good and bad sides, and you can't be sympathized with or shown compassion or justice, because by this line of reasoning, those are reserved for "good people". And good people don't do bad things, ever, just like bad people only do bad things.

    So, if a person who's a criminal is shown to not be a monster, it makes some people uncomfortable. I think.

    Edit I can't believe I spelled white wrong. And this whole thing probably makes no sense anyway...

  • $32857398

    I have a question for those familiar with the American prison system: how accurate is the prison in OITNB? Because to me is like... the nicest prison ever. The food is bad, but so is the food in the army and in most nearly-free cafeterias in federal universities (in my country). They don't have a population problem. They have CUBICLES! That look clean! With nightstands for their stuff! Seriously, look at all that space they have for two people in the cubicles. One person per bed! Everybody *has* a bed. The greatest problem with infrastructure that they seem to have is that there's only one bathroom stall with a door. They have a chapel/auditorium and yoga classes and a puppy program.

    I know it's still prison, but the prisons I've visited as a grad student were the stuff of nightmares that still make me cry when I think about it.

  • Berry

    Where're you from, if you don't mind me asking? Before Orange, I only ever saw prisons in Oz, and compared to that, Litchfield does seem super comfortable and safe, but I kind of assumed that Oz wasn't such a accurate portrayal either...

    Edit Well, actually, I've seen prisons from all around the world in films and documentaries, obviously. And then there was that cheesy UK series, Bad Girls. I'm not fully awake yet. Just ignore me.

  • Three_nineteen

    It is federal prison, so the people there are in for federal crimes like drugs and the occasional hate crime. I would imagine that even though Piper's cellmate killed someone, those charges were dropped in a plea bargain and she is serving time for the illegal immigrant thing. Most violent crimes are dealt with at the state level.

  • LucyKlein

    We do have one flash back of someone deciding to murder someone and there's the implied plea bargain deal from the Christian lawyer. The prisoners said Piper's cellmate was there for illegal immigration/slavery. Like most of the characters we don't know her actual charge or sentence.

    I don't get people seeing the women on the show as being victim of circumstances, a lot of them are shown to decide to be involve in crime:

    International drug trafficker

    Track Star
    Two women involved with meth
    Credit card fraud

    With most of these flashbacks, the women could have avoided legally activity, but, chose not to. Only the girl who left her abusive home and ended up on the street seems like someone there by terrible circumstances she had no real control over. I thought it was an accurate depiction of ordinary people knowingly making illegal decisions and ended up in jail.
    Even the woman who committed credit card fraud, she had a reason, but, she did use other people's credit cards to buy things after she took care of her understandably difficult situation. But, She took advantage of people who just suffered a huge physical/personal lose to steal their information. She had a reason, but, really how shitty is it to fuck up someone's credit after they've just lost literally everything.

  • lowercase_ryan

    Is it just me or can these problems also be laid at the feet of Republicans/conservatives? The punitive aspect, the profit aspect. These are not liberal tenets.

  • The past 30-40 years can be seen as a time when our modern conservative movement transformed US culture through economic policy, and in doing so revealed the underlying incoherence of our particular version of market capitalism combined with our particular version of representative democracy. Through this process we've completely bastardized our system of governance, giving corporations 'citizen' status, enabling untold and unreported political contributions, allowing politicized gerrymandering. It's a really shitty system, but one that is ridiculously hard to change.

    We've systematically looked at privatizing sector after sector. Pick one - airlines, telecommunications, education (though never quite truly, since even our inattentive public won't quite let that happen), prisons, military services, security over beat cops, health care, energy, now infrastructure including now our beloved Internet (one of the most important pieces of this NSA activity emerging is the complicit participation of the big kids of the Net sector. Read up on the origins of fascism (which is the collaboration of government and industry for consolidating power) and you can see some potential scenarios, most unrealistic in the near term, but not out of the question.

    One shouldn't read this as conspiracy, but rather as a very unfortunate embrace of a really flawed understanding of economics and markets, divorced from a realistic view of our democratic system. [Read "Globalism and Its Discontents" by John Ralston Saul for the best explanation and takedown of this.] We somehow convinced ourselves that this idea of 'markets' as an abstract thing actually exists and thrives everywhere and all the time (despite even the original thinkers arguing quite the opposite). These sectors do not represent the virtues of competitive markets as envisioned, in large measure because their strategies are almost never defined by the interests of the consumer and there are barriers to entry that are quite extreme. People make money, but relatively few and for doing things that often do not contribute value to society. Over a generation, we've succeeded in deluding ourselves about fundamentals of economics to a degree to which these issues are rarely touched upon in reporting and the stock market is used as a bellwether for all things, despite its narrow view of the overall economy (which has always been known) and its near-total disconnect in this modern period where trading is the primary incentive (as opposed to value creation).

    "That's the whole world right there. Our problem is that we are blind." Jose Saramago, 'Blindness'

  • lowercase_ryan

    Shit, please let this get into EE. I know it's a late entrant but DAMN!!

  • emmalita

    I don't think it breaks down that neatly. Lot's of liberals have been elected because they promise to be 'tough on crime.'

  • lowercase_ryan

    Nobody gets elected promising to be weak on crime. I get your point but I want to disagree with you. My words fail me. AAAARRRRGH!!

  • emmalita

    I'd love to state my position articulately and with salient examples, but my brain refuses to rise above "is too!"

    But then I found this article with an example of a bipartisan effort to change sentencing practices.

  • lowercase_ryan

    That's where I am, exactly. Except that I don't disagree with, I just think conservative think has influenced us to the point that you have to be tough on crime or else you're not getting elected (for the most part). Our views on crime and punishment are very antiquated. I like to blame conservatives for a lot of that.

    Then again, I blame conservatives for a lot of things.

  • Bert_McGurt

    I'm thinking the partisan influence may come into play when defining exactly what "tough on crime" MEANS.

    To a lot of conservatives, it equals time in lockup. It's a very direct relation that (effectiveness aside) makes sense in a black-and-white way.

    To a lot of progressives, it means things like after-school programs, anti-poverty initiatives, and prison training in skills that help inmates find employment after their sentences (reducing recidivism).

    Unfortunately, a lot of people still equate being tough on crime with being tough on criminals - and that means you have to HAVE criminals to be tough on. Prevention doesn't even factor into it, to everyone's detriment.

  • Guest


  • lowercase_ryan

    rehabilitation vs. retribution

  • Bert_McGurt

    A primitive and PUNITIVE time. For many, justice = punishment. Which leads to a thought process where prevention = threats of punishment, and if the prevention isn't deemed effective enough, the response is to simply threaten increased punishment.

    Obviously, there are lots of cases, particularly for violent offences, where removal from society is necessary in order to protect everyone else. But I simply don't understand how, say, increased sentences for drug trafficking are supposed to decrease the incidence of offences. Has there ever been a dealer that said "You know, slinging coke was fine when the sentence was 5 years, but the local paper just told me that now it's SEVEN? No dice man. Not taking that chance."

    In order for that strategy to be effective, two things have to happen: They have to believe there's a likelihood they're going to be caught; and they have to find out about the change. Those are quite the assumptions to make of a potential criminal.

  • upstate

    Many law enforcement officials and researchers have pointed to exactly that scenario as the fulcrum which broke the power of East-Coast organized crime. Low-level hoods were willing to do a couple years for loan sharking/racketeering/etc., but started turning state's evidence instead of serving 15-20 years for drug-related offenses. Once they got the small guys to roll on the middle guys, law enforcement could work its way through the entire criminal enterprise. These guys didn't have to read about it in the paper or speculate as to the likelihood of getting caught as a mathematical proposition -- they watched their friends get caught and crucified, and didn't want to end up that way.

    There are plenty of problems associated with having the largest prison population in recorded history. Let's just not pretend nothing positive has ever happened re: increased incarceration.

  • Bert_McGurt

    I think that's a different, and specific scenario. You're talking about guys who still got caught, for one. The increased sentences didn't PREVENT them from doing anything - it made them give up their superiors after they themselves were apprehended. The gambit was effective in putting more criminals in prison, but had it truly been a deterrent there wouldn't have even BEEN a crime to apprehend them for.

    Secondly, those were separate sentences for separate crimes. The effect wasn't obtained by increasing sentences on a particular crime - these criminals simply jumped on an opportunity to lessen their sentence.

    Finally, your statement :"Let's just not pretend nothing positive has ever happened re: increased incarceration." is misrepresenting my point, which is that incremental increases to sentencing for specific crimes is, at best, a conditional and minimally effective deterrent, particularly in the context of the type of offences represented by the inmates on Orange is the New Black.

  • Mariazinha

    I've read some researches that say precisely this!
    That what affects crime rates is not time of punishment (as in how many years in prison), but certainty of punishment!
    If you have a lot of unsolved cases, or a lot of cases where criminals get away with it, you can have people in jail for 20 years for stealing a bread and they'll still do it!

  • Maguita NYC

    You're forgetting that the Incarceration American System is a business!

    The private prison industry rakes in billions of dollars a year and dishes out multi-million dollar compensation packages to its top executives. During the Regan era the management of prison shifted to privatization, and business has been booming ever since.

    And here is the most important point in relation to the subject:

    Since private prisons prosper in proportion to the number of prisoners they house, there is founded suspicion that they may be holding on to prisoners, particularly the ones who are less troublesome, as a means to earn extra money. The two largest private prison companies alone obtained nearly $3 billion in revenue in 2010. There is an ACLU report on banking the privatization of prisons and mass incarcerations that covers for-profit prison companies. I'll try and find it for you.

  • Maguita, have you seen/read this excellent exposé on the Louisiana prison system by the Times-Picayune of New Orleans? http://www.nola.com/prisons/

  • Maguita NYC

    This links to an 8-part series... Is that the one you are talking about?

  • Yep.

  • Maguita NYC

    Thank you. Will definitely watch it over the week-end.

  • competitivenonfiction

    Wait, what?! Even your prisons are privatized? I know I shouldn't be surprised, but I really am.

  • Maguita NYC

    Yes. The Privatization of US incarceration system started in the 80s and had in the past few years compassed monstrous and absurd magnitude. The same btw as with the business of war. We are hiring outright mercenaries, trained and provided by Halliburton, overpaid and under-supervised... Or rather, never held accountable for the atrocities they've caused in the name of US Military; While American soldiers are paid pittance and suffering outrageous sacrifices.

    It became somewhat more evident around 2002. Here is a link in its early stages. However, keep in mind that CorpWatch tends to cover a one-sided truth, under very crude light. Not that corporations such as Halliburton don't deserve it and what is presented IS the truth, but it isn't what one would call unbiased coverage.

    Sorry, I tend to go on and on about stuff like that...


  • lowercase_ryan

    This ^^^ is great. Smart is sexay.

  • Wōđanaz Óðinn



    I'd add some more links but I'm on enough lists as it is.

  • Muhnah_Muhnah

    Ooh that would be great! I don't know anything about this area, but sounds fascinating. If anyone knows an easily, well-written book about it, I'd also like to know. It's a rather sinister concept you're describing there.

  • Maguita NYC

    Here's the ACLU report. Enjoy!


  • Muhnah_Muhnah

    Thanks! Got my weekend reading now. Thanks also, fauxhawk, I'll look it up.

  • fauxhawk

    Also read Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow. It's excellent.

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