“Ultimately, you judge the character of a society not by how they treat the rich and the powerful and the privileged, but by how they treat the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated.”
By now everyone’s heard how black is now orange and orange is now black. Jenji Kohan’s Orange is the New Black gives voice to an, until recently, overlooked prison population of women. OITNB radically breaks down walls revealing a myriad of issues currently plaguing female prisons. These issues range from sexuality and race to political agendas such as the privatisation of prisons. While the show is set in an American prison, all of these issues can be applied to Australian prisons, and there’s a lot to be learnt. Let’s talk about the amazing themes OITNB has coloured red.
This overarching theme lurks behind nearly every issue OITNB raises. Addiction is revisited multiple times throughout the show. Most of this revolves around one character: Nicky Nichols. Her character arch highlights the gross inadequacies in drug treatments for imprisoned women. The fact that Nicky relies on her prison mother, Red, to help her keep clean when she’s having difficulty shows us how deliberately ignorant Litchfield’s prison remains, regardless of their prior knowledge of her addiction and backstory.
Nicky’s support system doesn’t really work out for her in the end, but her battle with addiction resonates with a lot of addicted inmates whose cries for help bounce off the walls of their cell. A mother of two died while in solitary confinement in 2009 from severe dehydration. Tracey Veira was admitted to prison and fell sick a few days later. The prison was, like Litchfield, aware of her severe drug addiction and failed to act on it. She was moved into solitary confinement where guards monitored her deteriorating health, letting Veira know her withdrawal was just a simple leg cramp. Just like in OITNB, help was offered when it was far too late. Luckily, Australia’s approach to healthcare has drastically improved since the implementation of Harm Minimisation. Australia has always been a bit of a pioneer in this area and has recently created a new program for both male and female prisons: the Intensive Drug and Alcohol Treatment Program . If you’d like to find out more about it check it out here.
It’s no revelation that America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. To ease its citizens pockets, America has privatised many of its prisons. What a lot of people don’t know is that these private corporations have clauses stating that their prisons must be 80-100% occupied or else taxpayers and the state will be charged ludicrous fees. This pressures judges to cast harsher convictions for minor crimes to maintain the already preposterously high levels of occupancy.
Overcrowding spreads prison resources so thin that the rehabilitation and care that each prisoner deserves becomes even more of a pipe dream. OITNB touches on this during season three when Litchfield is about to be closed due to huge budget cuts. Caputo is forced to enlist the help of MCC, a for-profit prison corporation in an attempt to save jobs. Soon after, food quality is thrown in the bin and double beds are brought in, all of which are tell-tale signs of a soon to be overcrowded, albeit profitable, prison. Which makes for a nice prison, right? Not really.
Even though they’re a tiny population, trans* inmates are at a significantly higher risk of suicide and assault than other inmates. It would seem that the discrimination faced by trans* doesn’t just emanate from fellow prisoners, but also from guards. Recently, an Australian trans* inmate was killed while they were in “strict protection”, which hints at something more sinister. The trans* character in OITNB, Sophia, faces discrimination throughout many episodes, but this discrimination is clearly highlighted when her prison cuts back on her hormone medication. She then argues with the prison doctor who decides to stop supplying her medication completely.
In real life, most prison workers would advise you to make a formal complaint. However, in OITNB a fellow prisoner suggests she sues. Long story short, she doesn’t end up suing. The sad reality is that, in America, suing prisons is the only way to guarantee trans* inmates their medication. Wisconsin passed laws in 2005 making it illegal for prison doctors to provide trans* inmates with hormone therapy or reassignment surgery. Two inmates who were incarcerated in 2011 wished to continue their hormone therapy and took their state to court wherein the Supreme Court supported their right to receive treatment. Australia, on the other hand, is a little behind when it comes to trans* inmates. Only two states (NSW and WA) have actual prison policies regarding trans* inmates. OITNB continually portrays how prison policies that should support all inmates, often don’t.
Everyone needs to remember that OITNB is a TV show and it doesn’t accurately show us what female prison life is really like. What it does do is highlight some of the atrocities in female prisons and provides the underprivileged a platform to speak from. Needless to say, season four is probably going to incarcerate me to my couch for another season.