[Ppnews] Orange Is Not New, and Prison Is Not Our Best Color
Political Prisoner News
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Sep 18 12:01:04 EDT 2013
*Orange Is Not New, and Prison Is Not Our Best Color*
by Susie Day
Twenty-five years ago, I, a hapless reporter on assignment, went to the
DC Jail and met the woman who was to be my life's partner. I
interviewed her about her political bombing case; we fell in love; I
visited her in various prisons for 11 years; she was released; we're now
spending the rest of our lives working out our relationship, which has
much to do with politics and everything with what she went through in
Whatta story, right? I haven't written much about this because I've
found it impossible to convey what prison did to us. But when I read
Piper Kerman <http://piperkerman.com>'s smart, funny, heart-grabbing
/Orange Is the New Black
<http://www.powells.com/biblio/18-9780385523394-0>/, chronicling her
year behind bars, I thought, "Whoa, she /gets/ this." Then I caught the
Netflix series based on Kerman's book
I now suspect the most lethal thing you can do to the truth about prison
is to bring it anywhere near the entertainment industry.
From her book, Piper Kerman seems a standup person. Yes, like on
Netflix, she's a thin, white, Smith graduate; yes, she's got the
confidence that comes from being told all your life that you and your
people matter. But during her comparatively tiny 11-month stint in the
Danbury prison camp on a drug conviction, Piper Kerman, for all her
legal reserves, her family's support, her fiancé's devotion, realized
she was as powerless as the scores of mostly poor women of all colors
and cultures who did time alongside her.
Prison corrodes humanity layer by layer with absurd, bureaucratic
cruelties. Inside, as my partner found, the best way to hang on to your
soul is to actually /see/ the people around you. This is what Piper
Kerman did, and the bonds she forged with the women at Danbury changed
her life. Kerman became alive to the fact that the each of the 2.4
million women and men locked into U.S. "correctional" facilities
-- disproportionately people of color; almost all poor -- possess souls
that weigh the same as her own. Kerman angled her book in this
direction, and now that she's out, she's on the board of the Women's
working to change the punitive, lock-'em-up mentality that created this
nation's prison system.
Which is why it hurts to see what was, in book form, a credible,
compassionate story of women surviving prison, stream online as
voyeuristic entertainment for anyone interested in
mean-girl-sex-drug-snake-pit lockups. In this hierarchy of intimidation
and deceit, shame trumps compassion almost every time. No wonder
America loves this show.
Prison on Netflix looks authentic. Women have convincingly bad skin,
rotten teeth, lumpy figures. But this docu-realism also works to shield
shallowly conceived characters, many of whom verge on class/race
caricatures. Black, Latina, poor white women, and, lest we forget --
/lesbians/ -- are trashy, self-hating, predatory, and come with
precooked back stories involving poverty, drugs, abuse, etc., to explain
how they got that way. Piper, on Netflix, becomes a self-avowed WASP
narcissist who, before entering prison, begs her fiancé to "keep my
website updated." Inside, she likes fucking the ex-girlfriend who got
her arrested. She also isn't above turning in someone's contraband to
get what she wants from the corrections officers -- who are portrayed
one-dimensionally as sadistic or two-dimensionally as pitiful.
In transferring any work from page to stage it's legitimate to alter the
original. But OITNB the show goes way beyond this to disfigure the
basic spirit of OITNB the book, refitting characters and storyline to
suit TV's definition of "gripping."
In the book, for instance, Piper, new to prison camp, remarks that the
food is so bad, there ought to be a hunger strike. She doesn't know the
middle-aged Russian woman sitting across from her is the camp cook. The
cook, though hurt, warns Piper not to mention hunger strikes if she
wants to avoid solitary. But on Netflix, the cook seethes, and next day
at breakfast, Piper finds a bloody tampon on her muffin -- an unsubtle
cue to the camp's women that Piper is to be starved. Piper doesn't eat
for days, until she figures out how to make amends.
Crazy Eyes, in the book, is a Latina who had a crush on Piper, but who
respectfully backs off after Piper explains she isn't interested. Crazy
Eyes, in the series, is a wigged-out Black butch, who after being
refused, sneaks into Piper's cubicle to piss on the floor.
Occasionally, Netflix offers pockets of clarity: Poussey, a young Black
woman, is able -- desperately, ecstatically -- to catch a last glimpse
of her best friend Taystee as she's led away on release; Sophia, the
camp's only transgender woman, confides in the activist nun. And
despite the show's moral incompetence, the actors are, for the most
part, extremely competent, dimensional, skilled -- and deserve better.
But once you hear the opening lines of OITNB's theme song, you know what
the show's about:
/The animals, the animals/
/Trapped trapped trapped till the cage is full . . . /
I'm truly sorry. I know you probably love this show. Go on, enjoy this
skanky soap opera. /Definitely/ enjoy Season One's fade-out, as Piper
beats a psychotic white-trash Jesus freak possibly to death during the
Christmas pageant. Just please don't think this teaches you about prison.
Here's the thing. I've been visiting prisoners -- women and men; state
and federal -- since 1988. I personally haven't known life inside, but
I know what it's like to be the good friend of someone who will probably
never get out <http://lynnestewart.org>. My partner's 14+ years inside
color every aspect of our relationship, and that will continue until one
of us dies. And whether you know it or not, prison colors every aspect
of /your/ life this country.
You want to see women in prison? Turn off your flat screen. Get
involved. Teach a class. Write or visit someone inside. Maybe she's
had hot prison sex; maybe she gets into fights; that's hardly the
point. What will probably shock you is how much you have in common.
Susie Day is a writer.
Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415
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