“Orange is the New Black” fans know that the series is based on a true story. While Piper Chapman was the name given to the show’s main character — and it was her perspective that initially introduced us to the world of Litchfield Penitentiary — the character was a portrayal of Piper Kerman, the author of “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison.” It took “Weeds” creator Jenji Kohan and Netflix to turn Kerman’s memoir into the series that we have come to know and love.
On Monday, Indiewire had the opportunity to participate in a town hall discussion entitled “What Television Can and Can’t Tell Us About Women, the Drug War and Mass Incarceration,” featuring Piper Kerman and sponsored by the Drug Policy Alliance. The DPA is the nation’s leading organization promoting drug policies that are grounded in science, compassion, health, and human rights. Asha Bandele, who was previously married to a former inmate and who is now working for the DPA, moderated the discussion, which provided unique insight into the differences between “OITNB’s” narrative and the harsh reality of the criminal justice system. Rendering factual evidence and discussing reform, Kerman hoped viewers would not only look at the prison system differently, but also act and advocate for the reconstruction of it.
After her 13-month sentence, Kerman did not leave her life in prison behind. Rather, she became an advocate for women behind bars. Fighting mass incarceration and the representation of women in the criminal justice system, she currently teaches in prisons, serves as a board member of the Women’s Prison Association, and is the vice president of a communications firm which represents foundations and nonprofits.
In the discussion, Kerman cited both evidence and experience from her work as an activist to contextualize the series with the realities of the prison system that it reflects. Below are some highlights:
The Misrepresentation of Female Prisoners
Despite the initiatives catalyzed by “Orange is the New Black,” female prisoners were considerably misrepresented in news and entertainment medias, as headlines featured mainly male inmates. “Women are being incarcerated at nearly twice the rate of men,” Bandele said. “From the 1980s, the female prison population has grown over 800 percent, whereas the male population grew just about 400 percent. Today, some 1 million women are under the supervision of the criminal justice system, with more than 200,000 of them incarcerated.”
Kerman stressed that this was a byproduct of sentencing laws and that the reform of these laws was “the absolute lynchpin of a solution.”
“What has driven that is not a female crime wave, but that we have developed a different social response to behaviors, which include the use of legal or illegal drugs and mental health crises,” she said. “We know that what drives women’s involvement in the things we label crime and, in certainly, their incarceration is primarily substance abuse, mental health issues, full blown mental illness, and an overwhelming experience of trauma, sexual abuse or other kinds of physical abuse, as part of people’s histories before they get locked up.”
With a few exceptions, the cast of characters fell under this umbrella. For example, Piper (Taylor Schilling) and Alex (Laura Prepon) took part in drug smuggling, Suzanne ‘Crazy Eyes’ Warren (Uzo Aduba) suffered from mental illness and Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) was a drug addict. Watching the show, it’s hard not to sympathize with these characters. We even learned that some of the crimes were accidental, like Yoga Jones’ (Constance Shulman), while some of the violent crimes were not all what they seemed to be — it was hard to judge Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst) for her act of vengeance. It speaks to why the show was so successful — it defied expectations. Who foresaw their emotional investment in a cast of female inmates? We discovered that most of the characters did not deserve confinement, nor did they pose a threat to the community. They just needed help and a push to take a new path.
What makes for an appropriate form of punishment, then? This is a question that continues to be brought up in reform discussions. According to Kerman and her evaluation of the justice system, the policies lacked foundational logic.
“Women are disinclined to commit violent offense… When women get the help they need, they flourish,” she said. Therefore, “Taking people who have experienced a ton of trauma, suffering from a mental illness, or struggling with addiction; thinking that putting them in a cage is going to solve those problems is very wrong-headed.”
Without the proper treatment, such as rehabilitation or psychological therapy, reentering society stimulated a recurring pattern of crime.
Kerman also explained the array of elements from the prison system the show both successfully featured and also failed to represent, in regards to incarceration’s negative feedback loop, such as when Taystee (Danielle Brooks) ended up back in prison in Season 1. The institution’s lack of resources, and inability to sufficiently prepare her for the outside world, resulted in poor assimilation and prison being the best option for her.
The negative feedback loop was also apparent in an issue that Bandele concluded was not discussed enough in the show. Despite the handful of narratives surrounding mothers in prison — like Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriquez) and Daya Diaz (Dascha Polanco) — the situation required far more attention. Statistics reveal that “75 percent of women are not just mothers, but also their child’s sole caretaker at the point of arrest.”
Piper Kerman confirmed the effect on families and how it was “seismic.”
“It is a devastating tragedy for a family when they loose a father to prison or jail but we know that data shows that when it is a mom who gets locked up, that her kids are five times more likely to go into foster care. Obviously, not all foster care situations are bad, but some of them are very bad and the disillusion of those families is a tragedy.”
Consequently, it was clear that female incarceration continued a cycle of exposing young children to traumatic events. These traumatic events are at the root of the crimes, which led to the incarceration of the mother figures. Therefore it is a situation where two wrongs do not make a right.
The Larry Problem
Furthermore, Kerman revealed her relationship with her husband, Larry, was a part of her story that was inconsistent with the series’ representation of her life. In reality, she never slept or had sexual intercourse with her ex-lover in prison, and she was lucky that Larry and her family supported her throughout the entirety of her sentence. The role of external support was apparent within the series but, from what Kerman discussed, it was yet another overshadowed plot point.
Kerman then emphasized how important having a “lifeline” was in the context of another issue female inmates faced. Despite the higher rates of female incarceration, males made up a significantly larger portion of the overall prison population. Therefore, female prisons were limited and sporadically located throughout the country. Many women were sent to facilities far away from their homes, families and friends. They did not have the opportunity to see their loved ones in visitations, and they were prone to losing connection.
It does not only affect those in prison, but also those out of prison. It’s hard to forget the flashback where Aleida ignores and then snaps at her daughter during a visitation, as she couldn’t contain her excitement over a paper airplane. Kerman explained how children, spouses, parents, and even communities must bear the brunt.
The allure of “OITNB’s” narrative — the perspective of a white WASPy woman on the prison population, which drew a portion of the fan base — was initially a problem within the show itself. “Orange is the New Black,” originally, was a unique coming-of-age story. However, it was also what Kerman declared a “fish-out-of-water story.” She claimed during the call, “On a fundamental level, there is an assumption that an upper middle class white woman is not going to be in prison.” The framework of the premise drew attention, but the flashback format held that attention and grew the fan base, because of how it expanded the plot and included the stories of individuals from “all walks of life.”
This issue of universal representation struck at the core of mass incarceration. Kerman revealed, “We also know that data shows us really clearly that the criminal justice system is utilized not equally across the board, but as a tool of control over certain communities, and most of all poor communities of color.”
“Black women are the most vulnerable. One in 19 black women will be incarcerated during her lifetime, opposed to one in 45 Latinas, and one in 118 white women, and yet we don’t see the centrality of a black woman’s story in the landscape [of the series],” added Bandele. Despite this, the representation has improved. Over the three seasons, the show diverges from Piper as the central figure and emphasizes the importance of hearing stories form the perspective of all races, ages, and social economic classes.
In light of these issues, where do we go from here? How do we take the content of the show and the inspiration it provides to change the system?
“We must seriously reconsider what we expect of a prison, question whether or not we have just perpetuated a cycle of victimization,” Kernan said, before adding we must make sure “public defenders, other court appointed counsel, prosecutors, and judges are well informed about what might be in play with a woman or a girl who comes before them or goes through that system.”
This article has been corrected to reflect accurate information on Asha Bandele.