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‘Orange is the New Black’ is the best TV show about prison ever made

Piper Chapman has a rough first few days in prison. (Jessica Miglio / Netflix)

After the twin disappointments of House of Cards and Arrested Development's fourth season, Netflix has hit it out of the park with Orange is the New Black. I finished binge-watching the first season last night, and for my money it's one of the best dramas on the air right now, up there with Mad Men, The Americans, and Breaking Bad.

Created by Jenji Kohan of Weeds fame, the show is about Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a yuppie living in New York City with her fiancé (Jason Biggs) and trying to get an artisanal soap business off the ground. However, Chapman used to date an international drug smuggler (Laura Prepon), and transferred cash for her a few times. That past catches up with Piper and she ends up with a 15 month sentence in a federal prison in Litchfield, NY — a prison where Alex, her drug-smuggling ex, is also doing time.

The show's based on the memoir of Piper Kerman, who really did date a drug smuggler and really did end up in prison for 15 months as a result. So the basic plot isn't totally unrealistic. But are women's prisons in general much like Litchfield as portrayed in the show? Let's break it down, point by point.

The racial breakdown's about right

Orange is the New Black portrays Litchfield as having a white plurality, if not majority, along with sizable black and Latina subpopulations. And, sure enough, the largest racial group in U.S. women's prisons is Caucasians, according to a recent report by the Sentencing Project. What's more, the black population is falling steadily:

If you look at incarceration rates rather than raw numbers, the change is more dramatic still. Over the 00s, the incarceration rate among black women fell by 30.7 percent. The rate for white women increased by 47.1 percent, and the rate for Latina women increased by 23.3 percent. Of course, these are changes off pretty small bases, especially compared to incarceration rates among men. Black men are imprisoned at about 22 times the rate that black women are, white men at 10 times the rate of white women, and Latino men at 16 times the rate of Latina women.

So what's driving this huge increase in the white female incarceration rate? The Sentencing Project finds that about half the increase is accounted for by an increase in women in prison for property crimes, such as theft, burglary, robbery, etc. About a quarter is attributed to an increase in women in prison for violent crimes, and another quarter to an increase in women in prison for drug crimes. Meanwhile, almost all of the decline in the black female incarceration rate is accounted for by a huge decline in women in prison for drug crimes:

There really aren't any conjugal visits in federal prison

A lot of the show's drama derives from the fact that Piper's fiancé Larry can't come for conjugal visits. That's true to actual Federal Bureau of Prisons policy, which does not allow them.

There is yoga in prison

In the first episode, viewers meet Yoga Jones, a particularly zen inmate who teaches a yoga class. That's a real thing, as a trend piece in the New York Times earlier this year detailed. A recent study suggests that prisoners who took a yoga course experienced less stress and reported more positive moods than those in a control group. There also appears to be a yoga program at Danbury Federal Prison Camp, where the real Piper Kerman did her time. Kerman reports doing yoga in her memoir, instructed by a prisoner she calls "Yoga Janet."

A butch wing actually existed

In a particularly cringe-inducing scene, Sam Healy, a male counselor at the prison, expresses his support for cordoning off "butch" inmates so as to prevent lesbian relationships between inmates. He tells Piper he "ran that up the ladder" and didn't get a positive response. He might have had more luck in the Virginia state correctional system. Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women actually did set up a "butch wing" which set off a furor when exposed. The warden ultimately had to retire

Sadly and unsurprisingly, trans people in prison are subject to lots of mistreatment

Among the show's ensemble cast is Laverne Cox, a transwoman who plays Sophia Burset, also an MTF trans person who runs the prison's salon. Burset has trouble getting the prison to give her the hormone pills she needs, and goes through a kind of induced menopause as a result.

That's hardly unusual. A report from the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 16 percent of trans people surveyed had spent at least some time in a jail or prison. That's unsurprising, given the demographic makeup of the trans population. Trans people are nearly four times as likely to make less than $10,000 than cisgendered people, and are economically worse off across the board:

The unemployment rate for trans people is twice that of the general population, and 47 percent of trans people report being fired, not hired, or denied a promotion due to their gender identity. Sixteen percent reported doing sex work or dealing drugs due to a lack of legitimate work opportunities. Nineteen percent reported having been homeless at some point in their lives, and trans people are twice as likely to report being homeless as the general population.

Male-to-female trans people, like Cox's character, are much more likely to have been incarcerated than female-to-male trans people (21 percent compared to 10 percent). All kinds of trans people, and gender non-conforming people, are subject to frequent harassment from both inmates and guards:

Seventeen percent of trans or gender non-conforming inmates reported being denied hormone treatment (like Cox's character), including 30 percent of black inmates:

However, in one sense Cox's character is lucky in that she went to prison after having genital surgery. Transgendered people who have not undergone that stage of transition are generally imprisoned according to their birth sex. That means that transwomen are frequently put in men's prisons, where they are frequent targets for assault and harassment.

The inmates do work in their own kitchens, but they maybe don't run them

But they do so with some help, as this BOP job announcement seeking kitchen workers to supervise an "inmate workforce" makes clear. So while the heavy prisoner involvement in kitchen affairs seen on Orange is the New Black isn't too far-fetched, it's not the case that prisoners like Red (Kate Mulgrew) actually run the kitchens.

It's worth noting, however, that the kitchen system is nationally coordinated. "All of our institutions bureau-wide eat the same meals," Chris Burke, a spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons, tells me. "If tonight, FCI Phoenix is having hamburgers for dinner, every institution is having hamburgers for dinner." That greatly limits what the individual workforces can do in terms of controlling the menu. When asked about a case in the show where Red denies Piper food for days after the latter insults its quality, Burke said he's "not aware of any case like that" happening in the real federal prison system.

However, prisons are allowed to take lesser measures as punitive actions. Some prisons punish inmates with something called the "Nutraloaf," a flavorless brick of food that nonetheless is nutritionally complete, and which courts have ruled is an acceptable food to serve. Courts have upheld its use in response to lawsuits alleging it's a violation of the 8th Amendment's protection against "cruel and unusual punishment." It looks like this:

The SHU is real, and it's awful

Prisoners on the show fear few things quite as much as they fear going into solitary confinement, which they refer to as "the SHU." That stands for "Special Housing Unit," and it's the real term the federal prison system uses for solitary. People get put in SHU when they pose a threat to other inmates, general order, or need protection from other inmates. "Solitary confinement" is a misnomer in some of these cases, as double-bunking is common, but SHU does generally entail 23 hour lockdown every day, with the extra hour provided for exercise, typically. A recent GAO report estimated that about 5.7 percent of federal prisoners, or 10,050 people, are in the SHU at any given time:

About 7.1 percent are in some form of segregated housing:

The population in the SHU (solid line) has stayed pretty constant in recent years, as has the population at ADX Florence (light dashed line), a federal prison that holds the system's most dangerous male prisoners (the Unabomber, Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols, and a number of al-Qaeda members are there currently). But Special Management Units, another kind of segregated prison unit, has grown in popularity:

The SHU looks like this, which is pretty close to how it's portrayed on Orange is the New Black:

Many, including New Yorker writer Atul Gawande, have argued that the use of SHU and other segregated housing techniques is a form of torture. "Whether in Walpole or Beirut or Hanoi, all human beings experience isolation as torture," Gawande wrote. He notes that John McCain, who was subjected to solitary confinement during his time in Vietnam, found the same:

"It’s an awful thing, solitary," John McCain wrote of his five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam—more than two years of it spent in isolation in a fifteen-by-fifteen-foot cell, unable to communicate with other P.O.W.s except by tap code, secreted notes, or by speaking into an enamel cup pressed against the wall. "It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment." And this comes from a man who was beaten regularly; denied adequate medical treatment for two broken arms, a broken leg, and chronic dysentery; and tortured to the point of having an arm broken again. A U.S. military study of almost a hundred and fifty naval aviators returned from imprisonment in Vietnam, many of whom were treated even worse than McCain, reported that they found social isolation to be as torturous and agonizing as any physical abuse they suffered.

U.N. special rapporteur for torture Juan Méndez has called for the abolition of solitary confinement and related practices.