The Prison Show's Dilemma

By Maurice ChammahJune 20, 2014

The Prison Show's Dilemma

THE ACTRESS Natasha Lyonne, who plays drug-addict-turned-orgasm-aficionado Nicky Nichols on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black recently described in The New York Times an encounter she had with a Texas criminal court judge. The judge told her, “I never realized that the people I was sentencing were really people.”

“It was one of those shocking moments,” Lyonne recalled. “I said, 'Oh, thanks so much,' but I want to be, like, 'You're provoking a violent response in me.”

The first season of Orange is the New Black, which portrays the lives of a diverse group of women serving time together immediately galvanized critics who recognized the show had a particular social and political burden (no judge ever told James Gandolfini that he had humanized John Gotti). The American system of criminal justice is widely considered to be in need of serious reform, but we have very little access to what prisons, jails and detention centers are actually like, so the show was — perhaps unfairly — treated as one of our only keyholes into the vast and complex workings of American’s penal system.

Major publications praised the portrayal of diverse races, classes, and life stories often glaringly omitted from mainstream television. Others criticized the show for not being polemical enough. Yasmin Nair at In These Times pounced on the white protagonist Piper Chapman’s revelation that her peers are in prison because of the “bad choices” they made, since, as Nair points out, black and Latino men and women are disproportionately affected by unfair sentencing practices, all choices aside. A blog called The Feminist Griote said the show “follows in a long racist tradition of white media centering the stories of whites and using people of color as colorful minstrels.” Aura Bogado at The Nation lamented seeing stories about people of color “authenticated” by “a white woman whose prison stint can never be a substitute for the violence institutionally carried out against women of color in the criminal justice system.”

The show’s creator, Jenji Kohan, predicted these criticisms when she told an interviewer that “it’s very hard to sell a show about women of different colors and different ages and different socioeconomic backgrounds. This way, we almost get to sneak in these amazing characters and amazing stories through this white girl going to prison.”

Now the second season is out, and the same critical dynamic is back. This divide — between critics who focus on the show’s failures to indict systemic injustices and critics who join the show’s creators in seeing it as creative work of human narrative — is of course not purely aesthetic. It demands we ask whether we actually learn anything about criminal justice from staring at these women for 13 hours.


Starting in the 1970s, the War on Drugs and a more general fear of crime led lawmakers throughout the US to ratchet up sentences in ways that disproportionately affected the poor, minorities, and others who had typically gotten a bad deal in America. Criminologists coined the term “superpredator” to refer to remorseless juveniles, and we gave life sentences to kids. Rehabilitative programming was abandoned as a naïve waste of good, law-abiding taxpayer money.

It was us vs. them. We were scared. We moved to the suburbs and bunkered down in our gated communities, throwing the bad guys (and some innocent ones) in prison and the worst guys in solitary confinement and paying private contractors to tell us we could hide the problems of race and poverty with clean lines of razor wire in the out-there of Marion and Auburn and Huntsville, far away from us, unless we happened to live in the out-there, in which case: perhaps we’d like to work as correctional officers?

The HBO series Oz, which helped turn the network into a powerhouse of ambitious dramatic television as Orange is the New Black has done for Netflix, premiered as the prison-building wave started to crest. It portrayed prisons as scary places full of scary people. In his dissertation-turned-book Prime Time Prisons on U.S. TV, Bill Youssman writes,

Rather than merely reflecting reality, films and television programs like Oz that depict mostly African American and Latino characters, along with working-class whites, as threats to society, play a part in reproducing and legitimizing a discriminatory criminal justice system. […] The horrific images so central to Oz’s narrative may also serve to cultivate fear in viewers who have few alternative representations of inmates to draw upon. 

In real life, prisons were bursting at the seams. Policymakers, both liberal and conservative, who had once used tough-on-crime messages to get elected, started to see just how expensive prisons had become. They also saw that with no rehabilitation, the people coming out of prison were likely to commit more crimes. In 2003, Texas Governor Rick Perry signed into law a new policy emblematic of a bigger shift: if you were caught with less than a gram of hard drugs and it was your first time, you’d get probation rather than a prison sentence.

A few years later, the Tea Party’s emphasis on limited government lined up with the business community’s interest in efficient, technocratic solutions to social problems, and the results are still inching forward. The conservative group Right on Crime has led the way, gaining the support of Jeb Bush, Newt Gingrich, and Grover Norquist. One of their leaders, a Texas think-tanker named Marc Levin, has explained that “the public doesn’t trust the left on criminal justice” because the left has promoted “a viewpoint that society is the primary cause of crime rather than individuals.”

“There are factors in people’s lives, especially their upbringing…that make it more likely that they are going to get involved in the criminal justice system,” Levin recently told Texas Monthly. “But it doesn’t mean that you don’t hold that person accountable.”

A lot of the debate about how and why crimes are committed has to do with how far you zoom in. Viewed from afar, the low-level drug dealer who goes to prison for 20 years is either a dangerous criminal or the victim of poverty, racism, and an out-of-control sentencing. Zoom in, and he is just a guy who was dealt a bad hand and made decisions, some good and some bad. Orange is the New Black is an exercise in zooming in. 

The left, including critics who find the show insufficiently attuned to structural inequalities, is focused on the reasons why society throws people in prison. Conservatives are focused on individuals and their choices. The reality is somewhere in between: people end up in the criminal justice system both because they made an individual choice and because of social, political and economic forces. To believe anything more extreme than that duality would leave us either without agency or without influences. It would also make for a boring television show.


Netflix went into business making shows of its own only after spending years collecting data on what its customers wanted to watch. Their focus-group precision is easy to sense watching the second season of Orange is the New Black, which premiered on June 6th. The show had used long flashbacks to show how the lives the women led in the free world led them to prison, and in the second season, we get more of the characters everybody wanted to learn more about. Often, these are the black women, like Taystee, Black Cindy, Poussey, and Suzanne (who, in an honorable move, is much less often referred to as "Crazy Eyes").

These flashbacks often concern race and class. We see Taystee turn to drug-dealing in order to find a sense of family and escape the dehumanizing tedium of fast-food service. We see Suzanne’s white, adoptive parents emotionally fall apart as their daughter has struggles related to race (when she’s not invited to a birthday party) and psychology (when she freaks out about singing in public). The show artfully balances individual decision-making, life circumstances, and a deep sense of tragedy and inevitability. Whether you think the balance is off has more to do with your political leanings than the show itself. 

Where the first season hewed more closely to the book and tied up most of its loose ends, the second season looks ahead, scattering plot lines that may not resolve until many seasons from now, and demonstrating that the show’s writers want to create something with the longevity of The Sopranos or The Wire. There are still the charming spats of prison politics that marked the first season, but they’ve been thickened with a darker atmosphere. There is still humor, and Piper Chapman is still the protagonist, but our laughs are laced with more sadness and Piper, who we see less often, has been chilled and stripped of the cloying brightness she brought to prison.


The new season’s flashbacks are replete with twists. In the third episode, “Hugs Can Be Deceiving,” Lorna Morello, played by a brightly lipsticked Yael Stone, discovers that the man she loved — and told everyone she planned to marry — is getting married to someone else. Her voice rises to a squeal and her eyes moisten. A guard overhears Lorna’s half of the phone conversation, and in a gesture of kindness, feigns obliviousness. The moment is well acted and devastating.

Lorna happens to be the resident van-driver, trusted to transport inmates off the prison grounds, including a woman with cancer who regularly goes to a public hospital for chemotherapy. During one of these trips, a disconsolate Lorna drives away and sneaks into Christopher’s home. She ogles the wedding preparations, finds the bride’s dress in a closet, and takes a bath while wearing the bridal veil.

You might start to draw a larger conclusion about how prison rips apart relationships. But then a flashback features a revelation: It turns out Lorna and Christopher went on a single date, and he decided not to ask her out again. She became a stalker, leading him to file a restraining order, and we see courtroom scenes in which he describes her increasingly wild and dangerous attempts to invade his life. She’s been lying to everyone in the prison. She never really had a fiancé.

Television, with its discrete episodes and vistas of time, is particularly good for pulling apart chronology and thoughtfully reassembling it into a series of revelations. We also learn that Lorna was addicted to fraud, ordering shoes online then calling the company and pretending they never arrived in order to pocket a refund 

After spending hours sympathizing with Lorna in the first season, suddenly we see her flaws in full. And yet we can’t let go. Sure she stalked Christopher, but her desperate need to find love makes her sympathetic. Sure she stole shoes, but she couldn’t have become so materialistic without some help from the world around her.

The show has been judged for how well it represents the reality of the criminal justice system, but Lorna’s story shows that Orange is the New Black is often just as happy to cast off the pretense of authenticity. Her addiction to stealing and penchant for stalking are not employed to make a didactic point about mental illness. There is no wider problem in America, as far as we know, with prisoners briefly escaping while driving vans. We don’t learn about the pervasiveness of mail fraud. But who has not continued to do something against their best interests despite constant warnings? Who has not done something reckless in a moment of desperate disappointment? And who has not fantasized about escaping the present to confront the past? 

Like good fiction, long-form television can draw out empathy, mix it with the urge to judge, stir in disarming humor, and produce subtle cocktails of self-questioning. What it can’t do is fix our criminal justice system. So the second season will probably annoy some leftists who want more people to care about flawed sentencing guidelines. It will annoy some conservatives who think criminals receive too much sympathy. In The New York Review of Books, the writer April Bernard described her ambivalence over loving the show and feeling like a “tourist of suffering.” It’s hard to think of another show, especially one with so much comedy, that would weigh so heavily on our collective conscience. We’re anxious because the shame of American over-incarceration is no longer hidden. 

In one episode, Piper meets a journalist who tells her, “inmates are starving. They’re getting raped, and it’s not like nobody is covering this. It’s just that no one cares.” In real life, a few more people do care now. The New York Civil Liberties Union is using the show to call attention to conditions at Riverhead jail in Suffolk County, where parts of the second season were filmed. They describe the jail, with its “floods of human feces” and “brown drinking water” and “inescapable growths of thick, black mold,” as “too horrific for television.” It is safe to say that their press release got far more attention by playing up the jail’s connection to the television show. It may be regrettable that we need our calls to action to be flashy, full of blonde leads and women named Taystee and Crazy Eyes. But at least now we have them. Even if you occasionally cringe at an off-color joke or a trivializing moment, we’re a long way past Oz.


Maurice Chammah is a journalist based in Austin, Texas.

LARB Contributor

Maurice Chammah is a journalist based in Austin, Texas, who has written for The New York Times, Texas Monthly, The Texas Observer, Guernica Magazine, and elsewhere. More of his work is at


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