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Orange is the New Black & the Myth of Prison Rehabilitation

By Agent Bedhead | Think Pieces | June 23, 2014 |

By Agent Bedhead | Think Pieces | June 23, 2014 |

Note: I have watched no further than S2E7 of OITNB. Spoilers are included in the below paragraphs.

OITNB is a dramedy. This Netflix Original Series earns top streaming numbers by making people laugh and cry over its inmates’ antics. The show doesn’t aim to spread truths as a primary objective. The presumptive focus is on entertainment, but — even so — the show is very realistic in its portrayal of a lack of rehabilitation for inmates. Prison, even the low-security type, is simply a corral. A place to store inmates until they “pay their debt to society.” Upon release, they are shuffled out into real world as felons with no job prospects. Should we feel sorry for them? Maybe not, but it does benefit society when its members are productive ones. Otherwise, freed felons must resort to their old tricks in order to survive.

The characters of OITNB are slowly being fleshed out through their compelling backstories. Many suffer from impossible job prospects after struggling against childhood poverty and mental health afflictions. Here are just a few examples:

Taystee: Taystee is incredibly smart and street savvy. Sadly, she’s never gotten a break. She was never formally adopted as a child or teenager, and she ended up becoming a drug runner for Vee in order to earn more than restaurant wages. The first time Taystee was incarcerated, she worked for years at the law library. Her fellow inmates assured her that this experience would help her after release. Instead, Taystee could only get a job at Pizza Hut. She decided to (somehow) land herself back in Litchfield because at least she had a guaranteed bed and meals in prison. Then Taystee got real savvy and prepared herself like crazy to win the job fair because she’d heard it would secure her a great job upon her next release. Asst. Prison Warden Fig cruelly tells Taystee that she’s not running “a charity” for winners. But a $10 credit in the commissary is all hers!

Morello: For the entirety of the 1st season, Lorna Morello was relegated to the background. She was a comforting presence to protagonist Piper and other newbies. We don’t know how long she’s been at Litchfield except that she was arrested after the Twilight theatrical release. In S2 E4, we learn that Morello is in fact crazier than Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren. Morello went to prison for stalking her “boyfriend” and planting a homemade explosive device under his girlfriend’s car. Even after her veil-wearing bath at Chris-to-fah’s house, she’s still got a Fatal Attraction. Morello clearly does not understand that her obsession is abnormal and dangerous. Morello requires some serious therapy to overcome her delusions. Prison won’t give her that, and returning to her old family home after release won’t help either.

Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren: Crazy Eyes is a crowd favorite even if she’s been reduced to a follower in S2. She’s clearly “touched” and is very childlike in her behavior. She tells Piper that even SHU is preferable than being put into psych because they never want to let you out of psych. She tells Piper how “they tied her down like a balloon so I don’t fly away.” Crazy Eyes learns “coping” skills on her own terms, i.e., by mopping the bathroom floor. But there’s no way in hell she’ll be able to survive on her own outside the prison setting.

Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett: Pennsatucky is probably the scariest character because she’s so delusional. She is truly convinced that she is an instrument of God. She lives by her own code and went to prison after shooting an abortion clinic nurse who “disrespected” her by commenting on her punch-card abortions. She tries to kill Piper with a cross after Piper “disrespected” her by declining to be baptized. I don’t think Pennsatucky is a sociopath, but she is definitely a loose cannon who is motivated by her own ideals of revenge. Her time in psych only left her medicated and caged, and she learned nothing from the process. She did get new teefs after trying to kill Piper, which shows exactly how screwy prison priorities are.

Piper Chapman. We are led to believe that Piper is a narcissist. She is the everyday woman (i.e., Upper West Side girl) who landed in prison after a decade-old mistake. Piper, as Big Boo says, is a “terrible person.” Why? I don’t know. She just wanted her (former roommate’s) f*cking blanket back. Everyone in Litchfield makes fun of “the Piper show.” Even her idiotic “fiancé,” Larry, accuses Piper of thinking she’s “the Sun” and that the world revolves around her: “Anyone gets near the sun, they burn right up.” Yet Larry, the other inmates, and the prison staff use Piper for their own ends. They want her to read their appeals, help them land a bedmate, and catapult them to fame with the prison newsletter. Alex repeatedly betrays her, and everyone still thinks Piper is “the worst.” Piper will be fine when she gets out of prison. She’ll go home and resume her privileged, upper-middle-class white girl life.

The problem: We live in a world where law school graduates are unable to find jobs as lawyers and are considered “overqualified” for everything else. What hope is there for a felon and (possible) mere high school graduate, with or without mental health issues? Very little. From the perspective of OITNB, cancer patients receive chemo treatment at the expense of the state. Yet the inmate who drives cancer victims to their chemo appointments clearly has mental health issues, but that’s not a priority. At all.

Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She can be found at Celebitchy.