How ‘Orange Is the New Black’ humanizes inmates

Barbara Nitke for Netflix - Catherine Curtin and Taylor Schilling in a scene from Netflix's "Orange is the New Black."

Seth Abramson is the author of three poetry collections, most recently “Thievery.” He worked as a public defender in Massachusetts and New Hampshire from 1999 to 2007.

Most Americans don’t know much about our criminal justice system. Part of the blame lies with those who work within the system, as they largely don’t discuss it publicly for fear of blowback. A greater share of the blame lies with Hollywood, which for decades has put the entertainment value of law enforcement and courtroom portrayals over any fidelity to reality.

Enter “Orange Is the New Black,” a tutorial on the prison-industrial complex disguised as a TV dramedy. The recently released Netflix original series, based on a memoir of the same name, follows Piper Chapman (played by Taylor Schilling), an entrepreneur who is sent to a women’s prison for 15 months for having completed one mission as a drug cartel courier in her 20s.

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Piper’s experiences make for pretty entertaining TV — and offer the most realistic portrayal of convicts the small screen has ever seen. Because Chapman (along with fellow inmate and ex-girlfriend Alex Vause, played by Laura Prepon) looks and acts like a young woman a middle-class or upper-middle-class college graduate might know and admire, the show fosters a sort of empathy we don’t get in police procedurals such as “Law & Order” and its spin-offs.

The characters’ stories in “Orange Is the New Black” are similar to those of the hundreds of women I represented as a public defender from 1999 to 2007. Most of the show’s inmates are exceptionally intelligent, though not necessarily able to articulate that intelligence in a way those of us who aren’t behind bars would readily recognize. It’s the kind of smarts it takes to navigate intricate bureaucracies, form strategic alliances and protect oneself from harm while enduring difficult living conditions. Most of the show’s characters are generous and fair, though hard living has made it difficult for them to trust others.

The world of Piper Chapman is harrowingly unstable. Yet it’s also one many of us would inhabit if we lacked the money, medicine, therapy, support networks and permissive law enforcement to ensure that bad behavior rarely leads to dire consequences.

Consider Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson (Danielle Brooks), a charismatic inmate whose infectious good humor masks the anxiety she feels over her impending release. Like many of the women I advocated for in court, Tasha is likable and engaging but has trouble acclimating to freedom after years behind bars. Her evident comfort in the unpredictable but small society of prison suggests that some find incarceration easier to handle than the cold shoulder America offers its convicts upon their release.

Often, freed felons come home to unstable and poor-paying jobs, families who are needy or indifferent rather than supportive, and peers who have dispersed or sunk even deeper into harmful and often illegal behaviors. My former clients who entered a spiral of relapse and recidivism did so largely because they had no parents or relatives to help them, little access to expensive outpatient rehabilitative services, and no way to afford stable housing or find steady work upon release.

“Orange Is the New Black” contains many such stories. We meet Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst), an immigrant and former indentured servant arrested for running the same operation as an adult that she was ensnared in as a child; Dayanara Diaz (Dascha Polanco), who enters the drug trade under the influence of her neglectful mother’s drug-dealing boyfriend; and Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox), a transgender woman who commits credit card fraud to help pay for sex-reassignment surgery.

In a nation whose justice system often offers little more than one-size-fits-all injustice, a television series that inspires viewers to see convicts as fellow human beings can help us better understand and perhaps have a bit more empathy toward them. We should not confuse a TV program with a criminology course, but “Orange Is the New Black” goes a long way toward narrowing the gap between our perceptions of convicts and the sometimes surprising reality.

sethabramson@yahoo.com

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