There might not be Netflix in prison, but ‘Orange Is The New Black’ allows Netflix users to see what happens in prison — or at least a fictionalized account of what happened while Piper Kerman was serving her sentence.
Although Piper Kerman (Piper Chapman in the series)’s story allows the general audience to see the prison from the perspective of a new entrant into the penal system, the most fascinating thing to see is not Piper’s development, but the worlds created by the other inmates.
In prison, your needs are stripped and simplified until it is clear that you will only receive the most basic forms of each until your release — this includes community, which appears to be still highly segregated, as seen in ‘Orange Is The New Black’.
There are groups separated by ethnicity, age, orientation, and religious beliefs. Each group clings together like they’re survivors of a shipwreck, afloat in a raging sea as their ship drops down into the deep.
What’s perhaps the most enlightening, however, is to consider how the separate groups are viewed by the officials of the show, as well as the audience members. There’s a clear caste system, determined by skin tone, religious belief, orientation, and crime.
On the one hand, the crime caste seems to make sense. There’s more potential danger from a murderer than from an insurance fraudster. In ‘Orange Is The New Black’, however, we see that Piper Chapman, serving time for drug charges, is treated as better than her fellow inmates. She is clearly from a privileged world, while people like Taystee, Sophia, and Cindy, who have committed crimes that seem on par with Piper’s (fraud, theft, etc.) must serve longer, and are treated more harshly.
It’s clear that the hierarchy is built upon racist and homophobic patterns, as we see the lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters, regardless of race, ignored or harassed by the staff, and the ethnic groups (Black and Hispanic) treated as “lesser” with harsher sentences and punishments, lack of care (particularly for the black transgender character, Sophia Burset), and general indifference, or worse, abuse.
Even though ‘Orange Is The New Black’ is a fictionalized account of a yuppie’s fifteen-month sentence for involvement in drug trafficking, this caste system does exist in the real world, and it is rampant in the prison system, perhaps even more strongly than what is shown on screen. It is a solemn reminder that the prison system is simply a microcosm of the ‘free’ world.
What do we, the audience, do with this information? Is there any way we can begin to treat everyone, regardless of race, religion, orientation, or other differentials, as human beings, each valuable and worth aiding?
I think part of what makes television so important is that it helps us take that first step, the step of becoming educated about the issues that our fellow humans struggle with, whether it’s in prison or other parts of the world.
The second step is to keep oneself informed, via reliable news sources, and articulating this information in conversation so as to spread the awareness. We are powerful together, which is probably the most important lesson of why the caste system is such a damaging construct:
When we are not joined, we are separate targets, splintered ideas, unable to communicate effectively, a chaotic chorus of voices that are powerless to bring about change.
Together, however, we are united, one voice, powerful enough to bring about a true evolution of the system into something inclusive, empathetic, and whole.
BTW: Orange Is The New Black returns June 12.Image Credits: Netflix, K.M. Cone