Prisoners: They’re Just Like Us. ‘Orange Is The New Black’ Asks Questions We’re Afraid To Answer


This post discusses plot points and details from Season 2 of Orange Is the New Black.“You know, ain’t nobody gonna do nothing without gettin’ somethin’ from it…I’m talkin’ about free donuts or days off work.”

That’s what Pennsatucky tells Mr. Healy, a moody correctional officer and prison counselor, in the tenth episode of Orange is the New Black. Known for his temper and short fuse, Healy wants to change his image and help the women of Litchfield Prison by forming a therapy group, Safe Place. But sitting across from Healy in his office, Pennsatucky, the religious junkie antagonist at the center of season one, tries to explain why women wouldn’t voluntarily join Safe Place. Everything is tit for tat in Litchfield Prison, so women need an incentive to participate in the group.

This scene perfectly encapsulates the inmates’ quest for personal advancement, an underlying theme in season two. Despite living behind bars, the prisoners’ innate desire to improve their status in life is as strong as it ever was. Litchfield women constantly strive for upward mobility and access to goods and services, just as people do in the general population. They bargain and trade to do so. But unlike the general population, they’re forced to work within a confined, regimented space that’s designed to control them and limit their freedoms. They have to advance themselves through unconventional and criminal activity.

People wind up in prison because they get caught committing crimes. But the only way for these women to have a real life while in Litchfield — one with status, safety, better food, etc. — is to keep doing the very thing they are not supposed to do: break the law.

The stereotype of what prisoners are like gets shattered on Orange is the New Back. Inmates on the show aren’t just murderers, drug offenders, or thieves with no desire to better themselves; they’re people who want to improve their lives by whatever means are available to them. In prison, the only way up is illegal. OITNB counters the misconception that people behind bars are fundamentally different from the rest of society, that they are “others” who have strayed from socially acceptable life trajectories.

And that assumption, that prisoners are bad people who made bad choices and deserve bad lives, makes it easy for the general population to look the other way when prisoners are treated like less than human. Dignity in prison is hard to come by when policies in the U.S. allow prison administrators and staff to torture mentally ill prisoners, neglect inmates’ healthcare so that they have to sit in their own feces, and deny them fundamental human rights, like the right to water. Pushing aside the curtain between us and inmates, and making their world relatable, Orange Is the New Black gets us talking about prisons like the actual facility the show is based on, which is “notorious for feces infestations, moldy food and showers, and medical neglect.

Season two begins with a racialized competition between black women and Latinas competing for resources and status in a structure run by white people. Latinas have the highest status in Litchfield’s official economic structure, because they work in the kitchen. Every inmate is assigned to a profession in the prison, and kitchen labor is the most coveted form of employment because it offers a vantage point to observe all of the inmates. The kitchen workers also determine who eats and who doesn’t, a metaphor for dictating who is accepted and who is ostracized in Litchfield’s social order. Control of the kitchen is power. In season one, Red was the chef, so her white counterparts had an advantage over the inmates of color. But in the first few episodes of season two, Gloria, a Puerto Rican from New York, wears the apron. Latinas reign supreme.

But their socioeconomic status is a sour point for a new character, Vee, an African-American woman who previously served time in Litchfield. Vee wants to return the prison to its glory days when black women ran the show. To usurp power from the Latinas, she starts a black market cigarette business with other black inmates: Taystee, Black Cindy, Jenae, and Crazy Eyes. The group capitalizes on the materials at their disposal (tobacco, paper, straws, and tampon wrappers) to make the cigarettes — a product in high demand — and trade them conspicuously for goods and services (stamps and foot rubs). Through this illegal enterprise, the black women become the top dogs in the prison and devalue the Latina kitchen staff.

In the latter half of the season, the focus is shifted away from a racialized economy to a competition between two individuals with an ugly past: Vee and Red. Red’s business allies are white, and Vee’s are black — but the game becomes one about individuals’ business acumen, pride, and status-building. The same dynamics play out in every industry, everywhere; in this way, Litchfield operates by the same codes of conduct as Wall Street and Silicon Valley. So if the power struggles between Red and Vee, and between Latinas and black women, are ultimately about climbing the socioeconomic latter and bettering themselves with limited resources, why don’t we relate to them more?

Navigating complex hierarchies, the inmates on the show attempt to carve niches for themselves in an environment that’s intended to strip them of agency. Litchfield women do what they can to empower themselves — just as people do outside of prison. The irony is that the system meant to “correct” them, actually compels inmates to behave like criminals in order to hold on to their self-worth and dignity.

Orange Is the New Black calls on us to question policies that degrade people who, underneath their criminality, are deeply concerned with bettering themselves. This is a show that dares us to stop thinking of prisoners as “others.”