Surveillance and Power in Orange is the New Black

I have become obsessed with the Netflix series Orange is the New Black. Not only is the show entertaining, but it is also extremely realistic and eye-opening about the prison system in America. I think when most people think of prison, they think of the traditional guard-tower overlooking the yard — a classic power structure with the guards above the prisoners, being able to see everything below. Most prisons, however, are not as stereotypical as this and are set up with less obvious power structures.

Orange is the New Black focuses on multiple different power structures. There’s the obvious and hard to watch power that the guards have over the prisoners. The guards have their watch booth where they relax and watch the prisoners mill around. At any point they can call out an order, punish, or abuse an inmate for no legitimate reason. This power is reinforced by the uniforms worn by the prisoners and guards, which cause a clear divide.

The more interesting power structure depicted, in my opinion, is the power structures between the inmates. The prison is highly segregated into Whites, Blacks, Latinos, and others. Each group has their own bunk section and their own bathrooms. At first glance, it would seem that the prisoners chose for it to be this way due to their extreme hatred and racist thoughts towards the other groups. However, after further thought this system was set up strategically by the prison system to create separation of different groups in the prison. This is similar to the Panopticon example where not only are the guards watching, but the prisoners are watching each other. It’s easier for the prison to deal with fights between groups rather than deal with one unified movement of all the prisoners.

Taking a further look, there are also power structures within the groups of prisoners. Take Red, the head chef, for example. Since Red controls the food, she controls the prison. If you insult Red, you don’t receive dinner. She has “her girls” to make sure that this order is followed. In response, Red is given special treatment by the inmates and the kitchen becomes the center of the power structure.

Buildings and structures are built certain ways for a reason, and no matter what the organization is there are always going to be aspects of power. Even in a non-profit office, for example, the boss has his or her own office and the intern has a cubicle. These set-ups are pretty standard, but what’s to consider is where technology can take surveillance in the future. With more technology usually comes more power. Could prisons start putting cameras in the bathrooms? Do prisoners deserve the same right to privacy as those who are free? What if these videos end up being used for reasons other than security?