‘Orange Is The New Black’ And Boarding Schools

As I make my way through the second season of Orange Is The New Black, Netflix’s original series based on Piper Kerman‘s memoir, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison about her experiences at FCI Danbury, a minimum-security federal prison, I’m struck again by how much of the prison experience reminds me of my days–two academic years in all–at a boarding school. In saying this, I do not mean to, even for a second, minimize the hardships of the incarcerated, but rather, to point out how boarding schools create conditions analogous at one level to that of jails. Both are similarly inspired by confused notions of discipline and order; both show what happens when humans are confined and regulated by these.

It is all here: the correctional managerial staff i.e., the faculty; the supervisors and guards i.e., the prefects (drawn from the senior graduating class, thus forming a layer between us and school administration); and the inmates i.e., the students. We were subjected to regulation and discipline from on high, from our waking moments to ‘lights out’; we were subjected to arbitrary, often harsh disciplining from prefects (this included the usual ‘six of the best’ and punishment drills); we had fixed meal-times; our uniforms were prescribed and monitored; we could not walk with both hands in our trouser pockets; we could not complain about the food (the food parcels we were sent from home were quickly consumed by our ‘friends); we had limited allowances that we spent at the ‘commissary’; we could not meet our parents except at prescribed times and places (because my family was away in a distant city, I did not meet or talk to my mother for nine months); ‘sickbay’ was a refuge and relief; our every hour was planned and regulated. Some thirty-four years after I left my boarding school, I can still effortlessly regenerate the daily time-table for a school day, right down to the hours.

But the most interesting parallel for me is visible in the personal and social dynamics. Boarding schools, like jails, featured miniature societies, complete with their own pecking orders and hierarchies on the ‘inside.’ There were bullies and master manipulators–like ‘Red‘–who ruled the roost; they were feared and revered and resented in equal measure. There were weak ones–‘freaks’ and ‘weirdos’–who were subjected to bullying and abuse. If you were smart, you sought out and found protection quickly. Some manipulators–like ‘Pennsatucky‘–ruled over mini-groups; their hold over these was–like that of ‘King Rat‘ in James Clavell‘s novel by the same name–a contingent matter, dependent on them being able to continually spin their web of control. The weak quickly came under such influence. Scores were settled by violence and intimidation; sometimes you were cornered in bathrooms, sometimes in a deserted dorm; when a fight broke out, no one intervened till a prefect showed up. And no one, ever, ever, complained about a beating.

When the academic year ended, discipline was relaxed for the last day or so–teachers left campus, prefects gave up the pretense of policing. More scores were settled, more brawls broke out; the buses to take us to train stations and airports for our journeys back home could not arrive soon enough.

And when I got back home, I kept the ‘best stories’ to myself. Folks back home ‘wouldn’t understand’; you had to be on the ‘inside.’ I could write a book about it all; someday, I will.

2 comments on “‘Orange Is The New Black’ And Boarding Schools

  1. Paul says:

    Samir,
    I’m sure you’re aware of the parallels, but I was surprised that you didn’t mention Foucault’s Discipline & Punish, in which he describes boarding schools and prisons as both being examples of disciplinary institutions. Along with military units and hospitals, these are paradigm illustrations of his conception of discipline.

    Interestingly, I think Foucault tends to focus on the way that such institutions were designed to work and on their official organization, whereas your reflections (and I think OITNB itself) pay more attention to the types of resistance to official hierarchy and rules that occur within these institutions. “Miniature societies” and their tactics of intimidation are disavowed and even combated by the institutional authorities, but in many ways they’re just as much a part of how the institutions work. It’s interesting, in conjunction with Foucault’s points about discipline in general, to note that similar patterns of official organization give rise to similar patterns of resistance and response on the part of the institutionalized.

    • Samir Chopra says:

      Paul, thanks for your very thoughtful comment. I was trying to just offer a personal reflection and hence kept the post of the scope quite narrow. But your observations are spot on. I think authorities don’t want to pay attention to these points because they are so damning of the entire education/incarceration enterprise. But now that you have raised this point here, perhaps I’ll say a bit more in another post down the line. Thanks again!

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