If ‘Orange is the New Black’ Upset You, You Need to Know about Real Prisons

11 Jul

A Southern chain gang (1903)–the racist history of today’s prison conditions (source: Wikimedia Commons)


If you’re anything like me, this summer you were counting down the days to Netflix’s release of the new Orange is the New Black season. If you’re anything like me, you devoured the season in two days and have been thinking and reading about it ever since. There has been an awful lot written about this season. If you’re so inclined, check out this piece, and this one, and this one, and this one (these are full of spoilers, fyi). My post, today, will not actually be about the show. There will be no spoilers, so please keep reading.

You don’t need to have finished the new season to appreciate something big about the show—prison life is degrading, dehumanizing, and full of injustice. If you’ve ever been infuriated by what happens to your favorite characters in OITNB, then you need to know this: real prison is WAY worse. And that matters because prisoners are human beings, and they are being treated like animals (and sometimes, worse).

The injustices of prison life—to which people of color are disproportionately subjected—are too numerous to detail in a short blog post but I’ll give you a few:

  • unbelievably high rates of physical and sexual assault (at the hands of other inmates, and correctional officers, or COs)
  • disgusting and unsanitary food options
  • forced labor, which many have compared to slave labor, for terrible wages in deplorable conditions (picture sweatshops and chain gangs)
  • overcrowding, which increases violence and illness
  • psychological torture, which comes in the form of solitary confinement

All of these conditions get worse in the context of privatized prisons, where profit motives encourage companies to shove human bodies into confined spaces, feed them garbage, and ignore their needs. Private prisons also use prison labor to make money for outside corporations like garment manufacturers and electronic companies, while prisoners don’t earn enough to purchase things from commissary or pay for long distance phone calls to family members. (Check out Mother Jones’ incredible exposé on private prisons, some of the best investigative journalism I’ve seen in a while.)

You’ll notice that this post isn’t explicitly about masculinity. Sorry about that. But this issue is so important, and so underreported, that I felt the need to share it here. And although explicitly, I haven’t talked about masculinity, this is absolutely a gender (and race) issue—men, especially black and Latino men are dramatically overrepresented in prison populations. In women’s prisons, it is black and Latina women who suffer the most. And transgender people, especially trans POC, suffer extraordinarily high rates of incarceration, and while in prison/jail, suffer the injustices outlined above in overwhelming numbers. Prison (in)justice is a feminist issue.

In response to maltreatment, prisoners across the country have started to go on strike. In Wisconsin, prisoners started the “Dying to Live” strike, a hunger strike to protest solitary confinement. Those prisoners are now being force fed by COs. In Alabama, prisoners coordinated a labor strike, reusing to participate in the unpaid and low wage work that has been required of them—given the broader context, the fact that inmates who participated in the Free Alabama Movement were punished with ‘birdfeeding’ (where food rations are significantly reduced) and solitary confinement, is both ironic and absolutely maddening. Likewise, Texas prisoners in several locations went on strike earlier this year to protest forced labor and demand prison reform and better living conditions. This coming September, these statewide efforts will grow to a nationwide coordinated strike, assisted by labor organizers who share information between otherwise isolated prison populations. What is amazing is that in the face of unbearable repression by guards, prisoners are finding nonviolent ways to demand better treatment. This challenges widely believed stereotypes about inmates as violent, ignorant, and dangerous.

We need to spread the word. We need to get word to prisoners that they are supported and that we know what is going on. And we need to let our legislators know that we will not accept these human rights violations against prison populations. As a social scientist, I have trouble understanding the disconnect—if I want to study prisoners, it is exceedingly difficult because research oversight boards recognize that incarcerated populations are inherently vulnerable populations. And yet, these vulnerable populations are handed over to the greediest and most heartless groups, corporations. So please, spread the word, learn everything you can, call your senators, check out organizations that are assisting prisoners and donate your time or money, and if you can, get out there—several organizations organized actual protests to support the prisoners so find them and attend. And when you encounter stereotypes about prisoners, challenge them. Remember that many people are wrongly imprisoned, and even those who have committed crimes are still people, deserving of safety, humane treatment, and human rights.


Further Reading

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

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