Text by Kimberly Cecchini
Orange is the New Black returned to Netflix yesterday with a second season ready for binging. While I am certainly tuning in to see Chapman’s fate with her wrecked romances and her Christmas run in with Pennsatucky, I am also interested in some of the social issues the show embeds at times. Some of the story lines are fodder for conversations about the failures of our social systems from education to job programs to racial inequities to the lack of rehabilitation and support for released prisoners.
Having worked with youth whose childhoods are lived within institutional settings, I am particularly interested to see the show follow Taystee’s evolution as her situation is a result of compounded failures in our social nets. Danielle Brooks’ character is a so-called product of a childhood without any familial structure. Towards the beginning of the season, she is thrown a party to celebrate her release by fellow inmates, but, by the end of episode 12, she is back in an inaugural orange jumpsuit and to her job in the prison library. Her good friend, Poussey (Samira Wiley) confronts Taystee about her return in the face of Poussey’s own remaining sentence, “I know you ain’t telling to my face right now that freedom was inconvenient for you.”
Taystee pleads for Pousseey’s understanding and indicates some of the underlying causes of recidivism:
“It ain’t like that, P. Minimum wage is some kind of joke. I got a part time working at Pizza Hut and I still owe the prison 900 dollars in fees I gotta pay back. I ain’t got no place to stay. I was sleeping on the floor of my second cousin apartment like a dog. And she still got 6 people in two rooms. One of the bitches stole my check. I got lice. Everyone I know is poor in jail or gone. Don’t nobody ask about how my day went. I’m kind of fucked up in the head ya’know. I know how to play it here; where to be and what rules to follow. I got a bed. And I got you.”
At the beginning of the second episode of the new season (where I paused to go to sleep last night), we see a younger version of Taystee at an adoption fair where her hopes for a family are dashed. There are glimpses in the first season where the viewer is getting a perspective beyond her playing the “clown” and we see an intelligent woman whose promise has been unrealized. Brooks’ character speaks to the large number of youth who spend their childhood in the “system” which does not model how to function outside of it and prisoners who are ill-prepared to renter society.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a 2005 study unearthed this sobering result,
“In a 15 state study , over two-thirds of released prisoners were rearrested within three years.”
These numbers give truth to the words of prison reform activist, Carol Leonard (prisonreformmovement.wordpress.com) when I asked her what she thought was the greatest contributor to recidivism,
“No rehab and a lack of social/life skills- we are warehousing human beings- the corrections system is not correcting anyone. Prisons are not about rehabilitation and that needs to change!”
I am looking forward to continuing my discussion with Carol and other prison reform advocates regarding recidivism and other issues that has bolstered the United States to lead the world in incarceration rates; we have 5% of the world population yet we incarcerate 22% of the world’s prisoners. In a country that prides itself on freedom and opportunity, there is clearly something that is broken.
Whether or not the second season of Orange is the New Black delves more deeply into the myriad of problems that feed the prison system in the United States or not, it’s still can be an excuse for much needed conversations. For the sake of our nation and our communities, we need to have all of these conversations on education, race, inequities, prison reform, the privatization of prisons, etc. If you have any insight into any related topic, please comment on this piece and perhaps Tonight at Dawn can interview you for upcoming post. In the meantime, please check back for a follow up article on prison reform.
Cecchini, Kimberly. “Carol Leonard, Advocate.” E-mail interview. 27 May 2014.
Orange Is the New Black/Fool Me Once. Netflix. N.d. Television.
“Recidivism.” Bureau of Justice Statistics Reentry Trends in the U.S.:. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 June 2014.
“You Might Also Be Interested In:.” U.S. General and Prisoner Population as a Percentage of The… N.p., n.d. Web. 06 June 2014.