Orange Is The New Black And The Privatization of Prisons

Spoilers Ahead. 

Orange is The New Black has attracted–not unjustifiedly–some flak for its powerful and painful fourth season: it has been accused of being ‘trauma porn for white people,’ and of having ‘failed the Dominican community.’ Still, the show has provided some powerful drama in those thirteen episodes, largely by throwing off any pretensions that were hoisted on it of being a ‘funny’ or ‘comedic’ look at what happens behind the walls of a modern prison, and by concentrating on those issues that are too often the stuff of contemporary headlines pertaining to mass incarceration: the privatized prison-industrial complex, the brutality of poorly trained prison guards and correctional officers, racism, violence, sexual abuse and assault, criminal activity behind bars, drug abuse, the complicated social dynamics of prisoner groups, prison protests, deaths in custody, and so on. (Orange is the New Black is set in a women’s prison, so these issues receive an interestingly different treatment because of its inclusion–even if incompletely, and often crudely–of the perspectives of lesbians and women of color. Despite its increasingly serious tone. the show retains its witty edge because of its sharp writing and because of the comedic talent of many of its actors.)

In the many indictments the show levels at our society, one stands out pretty clearly: the privatization of prisons, the transformation of incarceration into industrial endeavor. The show’s narrative and rhetorical arc in the third season was radically altered by its choice to concentrate on the privatization of Litchfield, and not coincidentally, that is precisely when the show took on its darker tone. The predominance of the economic bottom line, and the casual cruelty and indifference to human interests it brought in its wake ensured that change pretty quickly. Interestingly enough insofar as any sort of alliance between the various warring factions among the inmates ever emerges, it is in reaction to the lowering of the corporate boom on their heads: if prison administration was uncaring and callous before, then the new dollars-and-cents mentality is even more grim, ever more removed from the realities of their lives, one that demands, finally, even if only temporarily, the putting aside of differences.

As Orange is the New Black makes quite clear in its treatment of the death of Poussey–the show’s most traumatic moment thus far, the one that finally pushed it over the edge, and made clear the it was not in Kansas anymore–an innocent human being died as a result of the decisions made by those, and there were many, who chose to imprison her and her fellow inmates in the way they did. The overcrowding at Litchfield, the use of untrained guards, the tolerance of their brutality, the systematic, cruel, ignorance and indifference of corporate managers; they all applied that fatal pressure to Poussey’s windpipe; she died because a system’s weaknesses became too much for her to bear. As they have for all too many in real life. If Orange is the New Black can help us pay more attention to their fates, and to the actions that are required to ensure they are not repeated, it will have, despite some well-deserved criticism, done its part.

Debating Teams And The Prison-Industrial Complex

The news that a team of prisoners–incarcerated criminals from the Eastern New York Correctional Facility–had beaten, in debate, Harvard’s team, was not slow in spreading. After the initial informal reactions on social media–many of which expressed glee at Harvard’s comeuppance by plebes–had died down, a more measured response followed, one which stressed that such a result was entirely unsurprising, that to entertain such surprise was to entertain stereotypes of prisoners being merely dangerous and stupid.  (An old friend who teaches at San Quentin told me her students are highly intelligent and motivated, among the best students she has ever had.) Several articles–in The Washington Post, The Harvard Crimson, and The Guardian–made precisely this same point. In these commentaries there is another common theme: that these results confirm the value of reform programs like Bard College’s Bard Prison Initiative, which offers an undergraduate education to about 300 New York State prisoners.

These two issues–the intelligence of the incarcerated and the success of well-planned and executed prisoner reform programs–highlight once again the tragedies of the prison-industrial complex as it currently exists today in the US. The US’ incarceration rates, as of October 2013, at 716 per 100,000 are the highest in the world; with 4.4 percent of the world’s population, the US houses 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. This imprisonment does not come cheap; in 2007, the US Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that its costs ran to an annual $74 billion. (Wikipedia source here.) But these costs are severely understated if one takes the talents of the imprisoned population into consideration.

The grim reality of a stint in prison is that–despite the fact that behind-the-bars activities have resulted in  musical albums and literature–they are finishing schools for criminality. Many an amateur checks in, only to check out as a seasoned professional. His or her time will have been marked–in most cases–by rape and assault, and by participation in criminal activity of one kind or the other. Mild forms may involve the smuggling in of contraband; less benign activities include the remote control of external criminal actions and participation in gang activity–very often violent–within the prison. (Bureau of Justice Statistics reports on the rates of recidivism among prisoners make for depressing reading, indicating as they do, rearrest, reconviction, and return to prison rates at or over fifty percent.)

The net result is the situation at hand today: hundreds of thousands of young men and women, rotting away in jail, tossed into a trash heap of sorts, forgotten and condemned, deemed unworthy of reform, guarded by correctional staff who over the years have had their humanity leached out of them, subjected to violence from within and without, and taught, ultimately, all the wrong lessons. This reckless wastage of ‘human resources’ would be considered profligate and indulgent at the best of times, an indication perhaps that the nation in question had recklessly determined it had ample talent, enough to spare in a gigantic, misbegotten criminological experiment. But of course it doesn’t; no nation can afford such squandering of talent, such locking away of so much potential, often fueled by racist tilting at windmills like the war on drugs.

Not every criminal is a budding debate champion or writer or artist; reform remains difficult, a challenge for sociologists, psychologists and criminologists alike. But whatever those challenges, we also know what doesn’t work: the penal system we have now.

Women Raping Women And The Frightening Ubiquity Of Rape

A woman I used to know told me–in the course of recounting her political journey from timid, sheltered suburban dweller to a passionate feminist and advocate for abortion rights–that she had been raped twice. On the second occasion, she had been raped by a workplace friend; she became pregnant and required an abortion.  On the first occasion, she was raped–repeatedly, over the course of a semester–by her college roommate. Her roommate was a woman.

Whenever I have repeated the abstract details of this story to others, one reaction seems to predominate–it does not matter whether the audience is a man or a woman: “How is that possible? How can a woman rape a woman?”

This response displays a severe misunderstanding of the nature of sexual assault. (I did not ask my friend for any details of her rapes, but she did add a couple of significant details. Her roommate was much ‘bigger and stronger’ and, ‘she told me she would fucking kill me if I told anyone.’ My friend left the university after that semester and moved back home; she did not report her experience to the university and she did not tell her family her true reason for changing universities.) Without getting into anatomical details, it should be clear that if women can have sexual contact with other women, they can also have unwanted, unsolicited, non-consensual, violent, sexual contact with them. And that is rape. (See, for instance, this harrowing tale recounted by a young woman on Reddit–and the responses it elicited.)

Rape is not synonymous with, is not defined by, the forced genital penetration of women by men. And this definition is often supposed to be operative in only tightly circumscribed circumstances: the woman should not have been friendly with the rapist, ‘led him on’, had non-sexual contact with him, or a variety of other conditions. These seem to be the ways our common cultural and legal understandings would have it. Understandings, which conveniently enough, not only let sexual offenders off the hook, but also those who, by their indifference, implicitly condone such behavior and ensure its perpetuation. Such a narrow definition and understanding elides the basic nature of sexual assault. This impoverished understanding underwrites not only the responses I received to my recounting of my friend’s story but also a refusal to see the many varieties of sexual assault and violence that go unnoticed, unreported and thus, not understood.

My purpose in writing this post is not to make the facile point that it is not just men who rape, that women are also capable of sexual assault and therefore, should be included in the usual condemnatory responses whenever a high-profile rape case catches our easily diverted attention. Rather, it is something a little broader. As the statistics pertaining to the rape of women by women, men by men–a far more commonly noticed phenomena thanks to our knowledge, sadly enough, of prison culture, and men by women shows, rape is frighteningly ubiquitous. (Statutory rape perhaps deserves a separate discussion. Needless to say, the statistics of men raping women dwarf all the aforementioned figures, and thus understandably dominate our current discourse on the subject.) I will not, now, speculate about what this says about our species and its various cultural and political formations, but I do know that much of our current discourse about rape–and our frequent pessimism about being able to diminish its presence in our world–is doomed to continue proceeding along distressingly predictable lines till we achieve greater clarity about just what it is that we are talking about.