What Orange is the New Black Gets Right about Life in Prison?

Orange is the New Black is one of the most popular shows to premiere in the last few years, and is certainly one of the most popular shows set in prison. The show is loosely based on the memoir of Piper Kerman, who participated in an international drug cartel and spent as short time in a woman’s prison; the memoir, like the show, covered Piper’s experiences in the prison system. However, the show is only loosely based on Piper’s story—the characters, storylines, relationship drama, and many other details have been invented exclusively for the show.

One of the criticisms often lobbied against the show is its inaccurate portrayal of prison life, particularly when it comes to the extreme freedom that the inmates have compared to actual inmates in similar women’s prisons. But is there anything that Orange is the New Black does get right about life in prison? Some former inmates have divulged what they think the show does get right when it comes to portraying prison and prisoner’s lives.

The downsides of for-profit prison system

Back in prison new season OITNB
new season of OITNB

The third season saw Joe Caputo turning over Litchfield to a for-profit company (MCC) in order to save the prison–and the jobs of the staff who worked there. Unfortunately, Caputo’s decision resulted in a downslide in life quality for the inmates at Litchfield. The once fresh food was replaced by completely frozen, inedible slop; poorly trained guards were brought in at lower wages; and what little medical care the inmates usually received was cut down even further. 

For-profit prisons do exist in real life, and unfortunately the portrayal of what happens to prisoners under for-profit contracts is accurate. For-profit prisons have been shown to result in harsher sentences for prisoners in order to meet contractually obligated occupancy maximums, as well as lower quality food, lower quality care, and a general lower quality of life for the people incarcerated there.

Prison labor

Promo for OITNB
Promo for OITNB

Until the third season, almost all of the focus on the jobs at Litchfield was on internal support jobs, or jobs which were related to the upkeep of the prison and its daily operations; working in the kitchen, driving the prison van, maintaining electrical equipment, doing laundry, and so on. However, the introduction of MCC in the third season saw a new job: making underwear for a luxury lingerie company. 

In the show, the inmates make $1 an hour–a far cry from the pennies they make at other jobs, and from what anyone outside the prison would be making–but the lingerie is then sold for $90 per pair. The extremely low wages, long hours, and very high profit margin on part of the ‘Whispers’ company as depicted in the show are very true to reality. In real life, for-profit prisons frequently lease out inmate works for private companies, since private companies do not have to pay inmates minimum wage and can increase their profit margins.

Prison staff does abuse their power

The show was picked up by netflix on its last 2 seasons following its own storyline separate from the books
The show was picked up by netflix on its last 2 seasons following its own storyline separate from the books

Not every staff member working in a prison abuses their power or is a terrible person. But as thousands and thousands of former inmates, male and female, can attest, the prison system enables people to abuse their power over other human beings, sometimes in brutal ways.

There are many instances of this occurring in the show. In one instance, several inmates are told they are going to be searched for contraband; an inmate requests a female officer give her a pat down—something that is completely within her legal rights to do. The head official present is annoyed with the inmates attitude and decides to send her to solitary confinement to wait while they ‘search’ for a female officer, who will then give her a ‘thorough, thorough’ search. 

This type of behavior—using solitary confinement and other prison discipline as a punishment for prisoners not immediately doing what they’re told, even if they have the legal right to so—is a frequent theme on the show, and a frequent theme in the memoirs and interviews of real life former inmates.

Little things can lead to big consequences

Orange is the new black prison
Orange is the new black prison

Many former inmates have attested to the fact that life in prison is full of extremes. One of the most serious extremes is the fact that even little things can have big consequences—good or bad. 

Orange is the New Black is not shy at portraying this particular aspect of prison life. During her first day at Litchfield, Piper makes an offhand remark about the food in prison tasting pretty gross; not knowing that the person she is talking to is the cook, Red. Red is hyper-sensitive to any bad remarks about her cooking and Piper finds herself herself starved out by Red, who refuses her edible food. She apologizes, even sincerely, but nothing she says can sway Red’s mind—on the outside of prison, her comment may have gotten her rolled eyes or a snarky remark, but inside prison it meant the difference between a full stomach and an empty one.

Piper’s dilemma is not exceptional. One former inmate recalled an instance where they saw someone cut in line, yet another instance that might result in a harsh comment in real life but was considerably more serious in prison. Later on that day, that same prisoner was beaten with a stolen lock for their action.

Likewise, little things can lead to positive consequences as well. Piper eventually creates a soothing lotion for Red, which results in the ‘starve-out’ being cancelled and Piper being put in Red’s good graces. The same former inmate who witnessed a brutal beating as the result of cutting in line also revealed that she once offhandedly offered a tomato she didn’t want to another inmate, whom she overheard making a remark about loving them; that same inmate later spoke on her behalf when a powerful inmate thought she had disrespected her. Something as simple as giving a person an unwanted tomato, in this case, saved someone from a beating or possibly something even worse. When you get one of these Charter Cable Packages, you can keep up with the action.