‘Orange Is The New Black’: A complex portrayal of prison life

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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The new Netflix original series Orange Is The New Black (the story of a “nice blond lady” who spends a year in a federal prison) received little advance buzz, but has quickly gained plaudits (and a fan base) since debuting recently.

The series raises many questions. Some are trivial (is Laura Prepon hot?–I can’t decide), others are serious issues viewers will have to wrestle with. This may be even truer for me than for casual fans. I’ve never served a day in jail, but (having largely avoided shows like Oz) I’ve found myself watching this for cathartic, as well as voyeuristic, reasons.

That’s because my dad voluntarily went to prison for thirty years so I wouldn’t have to. This is to say he was a prison guard (correctional officer is the PC name for it), and that the money he earned put his son through college. This also meant he would get to tell his teenage son things like: “I work with some of the nastiest people in the state of Maryland. Nothing you can do will surprise me.” (He was right. We occasionally sparred over my future, but never once did I try to “shank” him in the yard.)

When he died almost a decade ago, I was told by some of the guards that the inmates were actually upset about his passing. I even received condolences from some of them. At the time, my cynical assumption was that this was B.S. — that it was some sort of con game meant to prey on a naive kid. But other guards assured me it wasn’t, and I’ve come to believe them. (Dad generally believed that if you treated inmates decent, they would treat you okay, and that probably earned him a measure of respect.)

That’s not to say it was all fun and games. He largely internalized things, but would occasionally share what went on during his day at work with the family. For example, there was the HIV positive inmate (at the time, this was a death sentence) who slit his lips and tried to bite whichever guard entered his cell first. To most people, that would be an insane day. To dad, it was Thursday.

But these incidents were balanced out with other stories, too, including how (if memory serves) George Jones’ former harmonica player taught him how to play blues harp during his stay in prison. (His biggest takeaway was that the murderers and so-called “lifers” were pretty easy to deal with. The most dangerous inmate, he insisted, was a young, petty thief who wanted to prove himself.)

It was almost like hearing stories from someone who went off to war. Dad risked his life every day, but seemed to have a hell of a lot of fun doing it, too.

This nuanced take on prison seems to be one of the best things Orange has going for it. You are simultaneously horrified and amused. It might not be the best “scared straight” advertisement to keep kids off drugs, but according to at least one guy who has seen life on the inside, it’s a pretty accurate representation.

This is from author, journalist and, oh yeah, ex-conJoe Loya:

“A year after I got out, HBO premiered Oz, an hourly series about life in a fictional prison named Oswald State Penitentiary. I couldn’t stand that show. Everybody was über-serious. I’d spent two years in solitary confinement. My ex-cellmate was murdered. My best friend killed himself with a heroin overdose after he was charged with killing another prisoner. I knew how monstrously dramatic the place could get. And still, I wanted TV shows about prison to portray our wit and humanity, not simply turn us into cliché prison-rape cautionary tales.”

It should be noted that I haven’t seen the entire season of Orange (this is always the problem with writing about Netflix’s original series’, if you wait until you’ve seen them all there’s nothing left that hasn’t been said/if you write prematurely, you look like a fool), but (so far) it seems the inmates are portrayed as being more three dimensional and sympathetic than the guards.

That’s dramatic license, but I suspect dad would have approved. He was under no delusion that all guards were honest and decent people. Some of them were, of course, but certainly not all. And even good people can be worn down by years of working in a hostile environment. Refusing to succumb to the negativity can also take it’s toll. Maybe that’s why dad didn’t make it to see his grandkids?

I look forward to updating you as I watch more episodes (and come to terms with the Laura Prepon question.)

Matt K. Lewis