In Orange is the New Black, several issues are brought to attention that are currently corrupting the American prison system. Piper Kerman and Jenji Kohan have included these topics in order to raise awareness of these issues. Obviously, some of these issues are dramatized on the show in order to make it more emotional or appealing, but they are still very real.
Sexual assault is common in prison unfortunately. Half of the sexual assaults are committed by guards and prison staff. Even if the inmates give consent, it is still technically statutory rape if committed with a guard. 10% of inmates suffer from sexual assault. Even if the sexual acts are consensual between inmates, it is still illegal and not allowed, but is often used to have a submissive partner be protected by the dominant partner.
In the show, multiple inmates are having sexual relations with each other like Piper and Alex. Some inmates even have consensual relations with prison guards like Daya and Bennett. The show doesn’t depict any rape between inmates, but does bring up the fact that sexual relations between an inmate and a guard is rape. These depictions show the vulnerability inmates feel while in prison. They just want love. They want someone to care for them. They want to know that someone understands what they are going through.
The elderly are the fastest growing population in prison due to the long sentences given to inmates in the past. While the population is growing, the care needed to provide proper medical attention to them is increasing. The price for caring for ailments such as dementia and cancer is well above the limit that is currently set aside for the inmates. It costs three times more to pay for elderly inmates. For when it gets too expensive to care for the elderly inmates, the prison system does compassionate release regardless of if the inmate has a place to live or if they will just be homeless. In some cases however, the inmate could stay in prison instead of receiving compassionate release and staying with loved ones during their final days.
In Orange is the New Black, an inmate, Jimmy, suffers from dementia and is given compassionate release after diving from a stage onto the ground believing she was diving into a pool. She has no where to go and is essentially put on the streets where she will probably die. Another inmate, Rosa, suffers from cancer and is unable to receive the surgery that she needs to live due to the prison system refusing to pay for it.
In prison, solitary confinement is often used to punish inmates. They are placed in a room by themselves to “think about what they’ve done.” They can be placed in there for any amount of time. This can have psychological, mental, and physical effects on people. It is not a safe practice. Protestors of this punishment is saying it is torture. In the show, several inmates are given solitary for very mundane reasons or just because the correctional officer doesn’t like them.
States have cut prison budgets severely in the past years, but the demand for money has not decreased. On July 31, 2007, 4,322 women inmates were housed in a correctional facility that was designed for 1,980 inmates. Overpopulation is a trouble for many populations. It has also been said that the prisons are highly understaffed. The federal correction system is functioning with 3,200 fewer guards than need.
In the show, they show budget shortages when it comes to lack of food and supplies. Instead of fixing the plumbing when sewage was rising from the shower drains, the prison system ignores it due to the high cost of fixing it. In the show, Natalie Figueroa, the executive assistant to the warden, embezzles money from the prison in the show which is an extreme case of corruption in prison.
The show does portray some of these issues in exaggerated or inaccurate ways which has angered some former inmates. It is important while watching this show to remember that this is someone’s life. Hundreds of thousands of women live this daily. Don’t be afraid to laugh at the jokes, but take it with a grain of salt. Do not take it as a perfect guide on how to survive women’s prison.
Obviously, just the depiction of these problems on the show is not solving any of the problems, but it is starting a discussion. The show is making these issues mainstream and opening people’s eyes. It is all about informing the masses. With knowledge, change can occur.