[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 
Prison Association 
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 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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