Film & Television

‘Orange Is The New Black’, Season 6
— Litchfield, Taken to the Max

Two weeks before President Trump’s historic (and, depending on your perspective, either triumphant or terrifying) meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un, he met with another Kim: Kim Kardashian West. Although Trump and Kardashian West may have quite a lot in common (they were both reality TV stars; they both like to tweet), the subject of their meeting was an unlikely one.

Kardashian West asked to meet with the White House to discuss prison reform.

Her particular objective was to petition for the release of Alice Johnson, a 63-year-old African-American woman from Tennessee, a first-time offender who was currently serving a life sentence for a non-violent drug charge. After the meeting, Trump tweeted a picture of himself with @KimKardashian and boasted “Great meeting today, talked about prison reform and sentencing.” Within a week, Trump commuted Johnson’s sentence, and after 21 years, she was reunited with her family.

In some ways, Johnson’s case was unusual. While incarcerated, she was a model prisoner, actively volunteering, continuing her education, tutoring GED candidates, writing and producing plays, and becoming an ordained minister.

However, Johnson shares many characteristics with the 219,000 incarcerated women in the U.S. According to The Sentencing Project, an organization dedicated to research and advocacy for prison reform, 24% of women are incarcerated for drug offenses, while only 15% of men are. Only 37% of women are incarcerated for violent crimes, while 54% of men are. Although the percentage of African-American women in prison has declined, there are still nearly twice as many blacks as whites. Meanwhile, the number of Hispanic women has increased.

Perhaps more disturbing is information published by the Prison Policy Initiative, another advocacy group. Their research reports that of the 96,000 women in local jails, 60% are still awaiting trial and have not yet been convicted. More often than not, it’s because they can’t afford bail. Because 80% of women in jail are mothers, and most of them primary caregivers, the current system affects entire families.

The critically acclaimed Netflix series Orange is the New Black (or OITNB in our Twitter-based world) has never shied away from the statistics — or the human stories behind them. The show is based loosely (more loosely every season, it seems) on Piper Kerman’s bestselling memoir Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison. Kerman, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, Seven Sisters-educated, is far from your typical female prisoner. In fact, by the time she was indicted for an isolated drug trafficking and money laundering incident five years prior, she was living a crime-free yuppie life. Six years later, she served 13 months of a 15-month sentence at Danbury Federal Correctional Institution, whose other celebrity inmates have included hotelier Leona Helmsley, singer Lauryn Hill, and Real Housewife of New Jersey Teresa Giudice.

Showrunner Jenji Kohan, best known for her Showtime series Weeds, brought Orange is the New Black to the screen in 2013, beginning with Kerman’s (Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman) fish-out-of-water story, but quickly adding dozens of other characters and their compelling, often heartbreaking, backstories. Building on the realities of women in prison, many of the inmates at fictitious minimum security Litchfield Penitentiary are mothers; many are there because of drug charges; most are there due to some toxic combination of poverty, undereducation, abuse, or trusting the wrong man. Over the past few seasons, illuminating flashbacks to the lives of these women pre-prison have become one of the most satisfying aspects of the series.

Last season, the show’s fifth, took an unusual turn. All 13 episodes took place over the course of just three days during a riot sparked by the accidental death of inmate Poussey Washington (Handmaid’s Tale‘s Samira Wiley) at the hands of an inexperienced and untrained guard. The inmates took over the prison. Some held guards hostage (forcing them to strip and compete in an impromptu version of America’s Got Talent). Some attempted to negotiate for better conditions. Others took over the pharmacy. Still others created YouTube programming; or, in one poignant instance, created a memorial to Poussey. By the time the season ended, two guards were dead, most of the inmates had been captured and loaded onto buses, CERTs (armed and armored members of a correctional emergency response team) had been ordered to use force as necessary, and a handful of women were standing hand-in-hand in the building’s abandoned pool facing the future together.

You can find an excellent recap on season five from The New York Times. It’s worth reviewing before you start season six, available to stream now in its entirety on Netflix.

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