Jul 19, 2016
No Way Out: On Death, the Prison Industrial System, and Why Orange Is The New Black Gets Better the Worse Life Gets for Its Characters
Five days before the third season of Orange is The New Black aired on Netflix, Kaleif Browder committed suicide. He tore his bedsheets into strips, coiled them into a rope, tied the makeshift rope around his neck and jumped, feet first, through the hole in the wall meant for the air conditioner. Browder did this after spending three years on Rikers Island for a crime he was ultimately never charged for. Browder took his own life, but Rikers Island provided him with the know-how.
Then, four weeks after the premiere of OITNB, Sandra Bland was found dead in her holding cell. A traffic stop turned into a nationwide conversation as to why a black woman who was so full of life at the time of her arrest would take her life in a jail cell. The autopsy ruled Bland’s death a suicide, but those of us privy to the practices of those in power knew better than to trust the oppressor with the narrative of what happens to the oppressed on their watch. For those reasons, many plotlines of the third season of OITNB were exasperating. In a patented American attempt to show how, no matter our differences, “we’re all the same,” the third season blurred the lines between a life behind bars and a life beyond them. Too many awkward attempts were made at trying to convince viewers that prison wasn’t all that different from everyday life—the inherently dark “romances” between inmates and prison guards; the “comedy” of prisons that are acquired by private corporations which are no longer run for their rehabilitation, but for profit; and who could forget that hole in the back gate of the prison yard in the season finale, where all the women—black, white, brown, yellow, burgundy, and beige—ran hand in hand to frolic in the nearby lake? There were times where I forgot what I was watching and where these women were. And after binge-watching the fourth season—thirteen episodes in two nights—I suspect the writers wouldn’t have it any other way.
To watch season three’s finale and only see Cindy’s tevilah, her Jewish baptism, or Suzanne’s newfound romance with Kukudio, or the impending arrival of celebrity chef Judy King, or even Piper’s ascension to HBIC of the prison, is to ignore how transphobia gets Laverne Cox’s Burset thrown into solitary confinement, how beneath every romanticized egalitarian relationship between guards and inmates, men and women, lies the very real question of who has power and who doesn’t, and, most pertinent to the fourth season and our culture, how the prison industrial complex does everything in its power to rob those incarcerated of every last ounce of their humanity. If the third season made me forget that these women were in jail, the fourth season was a blunt instrument, reminding me that prison is not just where bodies are confined—it’s a place where the spirit can, and often is, broken. On television, and off.
In the fourth season, Litchfield is no longer only run by the inadequacy of bureaucracy, it’s also governed by corporate greed. Stuffing as many inmates into bunks as space will allow, hiring anyone willing to become a prison guard—even if it means hiring discarded veterans (whose own plight and prospects are bleak) because there’s a tax incentive, replacing any and all of the programs that encouraged rehabilitation with “educational initiatives” that only benefit the prison’s bottom line. The previous three seasons allowed characters the space to breathe, to develop, and to grow. But between the influx of new inmates, the changing of the guard (with Piscatella leading the new band of C.O.s) and the rapid privatization of Litchfield by the private Management & Correction Corporation, there are few places to go but down. Gravity demands it.
This season elucidates the hold prison has on the mind even after it releases the body. Midway through the season, Daya’s mother Aleida, played by Elizabeth Rodriguez, finds out she’s being released early. Instead of rejoicing at the idea of freedom, the reality of it sets in deep. What is she going to do? She knows she has to get her other kids and grandchild back from Child Services, has to get her life back on track—but how? The type of questions that scare anyone who not only doesn’t have the answers, but someone who wasn’t prepared to answer them anytime soon. Aleida’s plotline of her early release complicated the two-dimensional idea that being free from prison means freedom; often times it means the opposite. Not just for the characters on the show, but for the viewers watching as well.
This was something I’d realized watching the first season of the show. With Taystee being one of my favorite characters, I’d been happy that she’d passed her parole-board interview but also dismayed. As this was a show centered around the lives of the incarcerated, I wasn’t sure how a free life would fit into the script. So it was with equal shame, as it was with relief, that I reveled in Taystee’s recidivism. Yes, it was sad that Taystee hadn’t been prepared to navigate life on the outside; but at least she’s still here—in jail, where I needed her to be in order watch her. To keep a close eye. What’s haunting about enjoying Orange is the New Black is understanding that the show’s success—and the people who are on it—is predicated on the perpetual failures of the inmates, the guards, the warden, and the prison industrial complex which holds them together.
The show can only get better if the conditions for the inmates gets worse. The acclaim of the fourth season couldn’t exist without MCC’s acquiring Litchfield; Jessica Pimentel’s brilliant performance as Maria wouldn’t be as harrowing if the prison hadn’t had the influx of Dominican inmates: a direct result of the prison’s overcrowding. We wouldn’t get to see what happens when veterans, once deployed to protect democracy, are empowered to feel like freedom begins and end with them. You don’t get to see how the slippery slope of the “broken windows” theory slides from admirable, in theory, to sadistic, racist and—in the show’s particular case—downright sexist without Piscatella’s merciless treatment of the women in the prison. Over the course of the fourth season, the guards refer to the women by their names less and less. They become exactly what the guards need in order for them to keep their jobs, what MCC needs so they may continue to capitalize off of the free labor, and what we as viewers expect in order for there to be a show at all— “inmates.”
After serving eight months on Rikers, my brother told me what the prison guards told him the day he got there. “We don’t care if you ever get out,” they said. “The longer you stay here the better. Jail is our business. It’s how we make our money.” I remember how scared that made me. Regardless of how much time my brother was supposed to serve, those guards gave him a death sentence. Laws, rhetoric, and sentencing procedures prey on bodies of color because it’s lucrative to do so. The fictional universe created in Orange Is the New Black is held together by the very real ways in which power is enacted upon the powerless in real life.
It’s impossible to see the guards targeting the Latina inmates for panties in favor of the white ones who are doing the same thing and not be reminded of “Stop and Frisk”; to watch the “romantic” relationship between Pennsatucky and C.O. Coates without having to confront the fact that our society, steeped in patriarchy, has no real language of accountability for the men who rape women (Coates can’t even say the word “rape”); to observe Judy King in the relative bliss of protective custody and not be reminded of the countless high-profile celebrities whose fame and wealth isolates them from the harsh realities of everyday people; to witness Stratman’s cruel and unusual punishment of Blanca and not recall Abu Ghraib.
In the ways that Lolly and Suzanne provide comedic relief for the show, there are many more ways in which they show how serious living with mental illness is. We laugh because we’d like to think these women are in control of their bodies. It stops being funny when we realize they aren’t. This point is punctuated with the season’s two most heartbreaking plotlines: Burset’s solitary confinement and Poussey’s death. With every scene that features Burset in solitary, we get to see not only how Kalief Browder and Sandra Bland died but how the prisons that were supposed to ensure their safety killed them. Burset does everything in her power to escape solitary—floods the bathroom, starts a fire. The two most painful ways to die. Over and over she tells the guards she’s going to kill herself. Over and over they ignore her, leaving her to contemplate if life is worth living when death looks like the only way out.
Death becomes Poussey’s exit—from Litchfield and from the show. Her death had been especially tragic because her life had the most promise beyond the prison’s walls. Poussey’s father was a U.S. Army Major; her mother had a master’s in art history. Poussey herself was fluent in three languages and was supposed to go to West Point. Her only reason for even being in jail was for selling marijuana, a drug that’s rapidly being legalized across the U.S. She’s in a “post-racial” relationship and even asks Judy King for help with employment once she’s released. This is not the character you kill. Especially when considering her death mirrored, in its tragic escalation, the death of another fictional character, Bill Nunn’s Radio Raheem in Spike Lee’s 1989 classic, Do The Right Thing. More poignant still is how her death broke the fourth wall, connecting with Eric Garner’s, as well as Mike Brown’s.
As I watched the publicity team at MCC desperately search for a narrative that would shift the blame from them onto anyone it would stick to, I wondered if that’s what took the paramedics so long to get Brown’s body from the simmering concrete. I wonder if Mike Brown’s body had lied there for four hours because that’s how long it took the Ferguson Police Department to craft the story they wanted to tell. Like Poussey, Brown wasn’t a person; he was a PR crisis. A Freudian slip. A little white lie. Nothing major. We can come back from this.
But, alas, there is no coming back from death. And because Orange Is the New Black is not a daytime soap opera, there will be no evil twins or doppelgängers. All we have is what her death tells us about our society. It tells us that the only tragic deaths are the ones we don’t see coming. I wonder if Poussey’s death would’ve been as heartbreaking, as tragic, as undoing, if her life hadn’t been so promising. If her father hadn’t been an army officer, if her mother was a crack whore, if she wasn’t as cultured and personable, if she wasn’t someone we could look at and say, “I like her; she can stay.”
Photos courtesy of Netflix
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