Over the past year, a lot of people have asked me if I watched Orange is the New Black. The answer has been no, because I just didn’t want to watch it. I was afraid that life in jail and prison would be Hollywood-ified.
After a conversation with my friend Katie, I decided to give it a try. I was crying in the first few minutes of the first episode. At first I wasn’t really sure why. Maybe it was some of the familiar faces. Maybe it was the fact that the main character got to have a “last supper” when most women have no time to prepare or say goodbye when they get booked. Maybe it was the reality that any of us could be in someone else’s shoes. Maybe it was the compassion of the main character’s fiancé.
It’s a hard show to watch. It’s hard for me because I see all of my girls’ faces in the faces of the cast of characters. It’s hard because there are some scenes that I just don’t want to see. What I love about the show is the focus on the women’s stories. No one on the show is portrayed as an insane, mindless criminal. Even the most hardened, crazy-eyed criminals have a story, and the show does a beautiful job of portraying that.
While I am watching the show, I am noting the similarities and the differences between the show and reality. Here is what I have noticed so far:
- There is no such thing as “taking a cup of tea out to the rec yard and reading a book under a tree.” In the jail I visit, there is no rec yard. There is no hot tea. And there is definitely no freedom to roam around anywhere.
- There is such a thing as “SHU”. It’s solitary confinement. And it happens a lot.
- There is no privacy. No doors on the bathroom stalls. No walls to hide behind. No closets to go in. The women I visit eat, sleep, shower, and relieve themselves in one large, open room with an officer watching their every move.
- Shakedowns happen all the time. There isn’t much space to receive or maintain contraband. I have seen beds torn apart, women searched from head to toe, and belongs be tossed around.
- There are actually good correction’s officers. There are also bad ones. There are officers who believe that inmates aren’t people. But there are also officers to encourage the women, treat them with dignity, and do their jobs well.
- It’s true that “women fight with gossip and rumors”. That is a line from one of the first episodes during the first season. I spend a significant time of church services helping the women express and navigate conflict, rather than talking behind each other’s backs and using information about each other’s cases against each other.
- Birthdays are either a really big deal, or totally ignored, depending on the person.
- Anything “altered to serve a purpose other than its original intention” is contraband. Earlier this year, a girl made me a beautiful rose bouquet out of toilet paper. I could not take them because she took something meant for cleaning up human dung and turned it into something beautiful. So we left the roses in the room where we have service and they are still there for our enjoyment.
- Everything is caught on camera. EVERYTHING.
- Detox is real. And it’s scary. Very scary.
- Visitation in the jail here means no contact whatsoever. The girls I work with sit at an old computer monitor while their friends, family members, and significant others are about 3 blocks away in a separate building and their image and voices are transmitted to the inmate. The only personal contact they have is with attorneys, child services, and faith-based organizations.
- The only thing scarier than getting out of jail or prison is getting out. Most inmates leave with debt. They pay to stay in jail, to eat each meal, to get a toothbrush. That is why recidivism (repeat incarcerations) are so high. The only truth most inmates are walking out to is their pimp, their dealer, a new mound of debt, and hopelessness.
- I’ve never seen an orange jumpsuit. Or khaki. The ladies I work with wear blue, or “blues”.
What I love are the moments where the show pauses for “moments”. When the characters express vulnerability, open up to each other, or experience tremendous pain, it is not only acknowledged but celebrated. Moments are real, inside of jail or prison and outside. The difference is, the incarcerated have nothing but time on their hands. They tend to stop when something big happens, even if it seems small.
While some watch this show for entertainment, I hope it brings awareness to the very real problem that is the American system of punishment. The country of Portugal has cut addiction rates in half by decriminalizing drugs, and using the money previously spent on incarcerating drug criminals to connect them with community, jobs, and housing. For more information, please read this article or watch Johann Hari’s TedTalk. Hari truthfully professes that “the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety. It’s connection.”
When I write about my time in the jail, my hope is to encourage others to serve in the jails and prisons to help with this problem. My hope is to demystify, to debunk myths and rumors, and to encourage others to get involved rather than stand on the sidelines. If we want to see things change around us, we are going to need to be a part of that.