‘Orange Is The New Black’: The New Way To See Prisoners
Let me explain to you why Orange Is The New Black is the real deal — and I’m talking about the best-selling memoir by Piper Kerman as much as about the new kickass Netflix show of the same name.
Back in 1989, I walked into a racially segregated chow hall at Lompoc Federal Penitentiary. My first morning of an eight-year sentence for bank robbery.
While we were chowing down, a Viking-large biker prisoner — muscular arms sleeved with tattoos, long bushy ZZ Top beard — stood up, put one thumb under each arm pit, then flapped his arms like a bird. He shouted out, “Quack quack, I’m a duck. I can’t call games worth a fuck! Quack quack, I’m a…..”
He did this routine three times. Then sat down. Back to eating.
There were scattered chuckles, but the prisoners mostly reacted nonchalantly. I asked the guy next to me to explain what just happened.
“Oh, he bet the wrong team last night. Some guys don’t want to bet for money or canteen. They want to publicly humiliate a loser. So they bet chow hall ‘quacks quacks’ instead.”
That’s when I first realized prison was going to be as funny as it would be terrifying. I was now on my journey to discover what Flannery O’Connor meant when she wrote, “The maximum amount of seriousness admits the maximum amount of comedy.”
And this is what I am digging about the series, Orange Is The New Black: It’s a first-rate “dramedy” — there is no other word in the English language to better describe prison life.
Let me stop here and offer this disclosure: Piper Kerman and I are friends. Years ago, when she first went to prison, we corresponded. I’d met her husband, Larry Smith, through a mutual friend. I’d heard that Piper had been incarcerated and wanted books, so I sent her my memoir of my own prison experience, The Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell: Confessions of a Bank Robber, with a note saying I knew exactly what she was going through. Our correspondence was born — and apparently my words of encouragement stuck because she published one of my letters in her memoir.
Orange premiered on July 11, and ever since, I’ve been getting daily calls and emails from friends asking what I think of the series. Everyone loves the show, but most friends also consider some parts bogus, even claiming they can spot where Hollywood got “intrusive.”
They point to goofy or absurd plot lines, unaware of how true those stories actually are — in fact, some true to real prison life (like wild animals wandering some prison yards), or pulled straight from the memoir, like the fact that Piper discovers she is doing time with her ex-lover, a lesbian drug trafficker. Some shit is too good to make up — think Congressman Weiner brought down by his weiner. Or Swingers for Jesus.
When I was released from prison seventeen years ago, several of my homeboys called me on weekends to check in. They knew I was writing op-eds and a memoir. They’d tell me to write about the humor behind bars. “Show people we’re funny, Joe, that we laugh a lot in this place.”
This perspective has always been key for me. Especially since really popular crime movies and TV series mostly portray prisoners and criminals as humorless. I love Michael Mann flicks (e.g., Heat, Miami Vice, Collateral), but, damn, you’ll never find any of his characters saying anything funny, much less smiling. (Tarantino, on the other hand, is fine on this point.)
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.
Most of the killers I knew were funny bastards — jocular, even. Sharky would smile as he jacked off an invisible penis on his forehead if he didn’t believe what you said. The implication being you must think an invisible set of testicles were covering his eyes to prevent him from seeing things clearly. Fergie once pointed at a prisoner chatting with a guard: “See Kansas Ron over there? His head is so far up that guard’s ass you can see the top of Ron’s glasses when the guard yawns.”
Maximum seriousness. Maximum comedy.
The tagline for Oz was, “It’s no place like home.” The creators thought they were being clever, riffing off Dorothy’s line from The Wizard of Oz. But therein lies the central problem with all shows that portray prison as exotic: Prison actually is very much like home. Nobody gets to choose their family, the cast of characters we all have to figure out how to get along with for years. We wake up one morning and realize our life has intersected with people who might have shitty histories, knucklehead intelligences (or generic emotional pain and fumblings), and we just got to figure out how to cope. Home life.
The world behind bars is full of the same stupidity you find out here: the same sloppy sufferers, the same professional prevaricators, fantastic fornicators, addicts of every stripe — basically, the same wide range of human behavioral tics that you’ll find in the general population.
And that’s why I started this essay with the claim that Orange Is The New Black is the real deal. The show — though not a biopic, therefore not literally accurate — still captures truthfully the zaniness of prison. And the sex agonies. The fortunate camaraderie. The hidden likenesses between the guards and prisoners. The collaborations. The antagonisms. The pain of family visits.
Sure, some things are different in all-men and all-women prisons. I’ve conducted writing workshops in every all-woman state prison in California. Helped hundreds of women write their stories in reentry facilities all over the state. Harassment by guards is specific to each population. Guards don’t cop a literal feel while searching male prisoners, like they do with female prisoners. But when they say during a body search, something like “Smells like a bouquet of roses in here” when you’re bent forward, coughing, naked asshole exposed, I tell you, in that hot moment, it feels like that guard just shoved their flashlight inside you. Humiliations are sometimes concretely different in all-male and all female prisons.
But the sameness of female and male prison experiences is well noted in Orange. Like the evocation of the tedium of “waiting” behind bars. Something everyone out here can relate to if you ever had to pay a bill online, or seek out tech support. It took me two hours to buy an iPhone recently. Easy-peasy lemon-squeezy. Was just like waiting in the prison medication line. The female prisoners in the show have to stand still for six daily counts. Those scenes bring to mind my visits to the DMV.
Another strength is the way the show introduces the prisoners —Russian cook, wigger, religious kook, transgendered, kind-hearted yoga instructor, compassionate ex-nun — then reveals their backstories on the streets. Let’s you see how they were once like you, struggling with the pressures on their moral poise right before they acted against their conscience and turned criminally transgressive. You can see how these prisoners are still gloriously like you in all their pettiness or splendor. Except they’re now experiencing the human condition thing dressed in orange and khaki.
I’m really appreciating how almost every episode shows a few scenes with folks seeing, handling, or reading books. I could tell a lot about a prisoner by the books they kept on their shelves, or tried to get me to read. Prisoners love to share books. We are readers in there. And just like out here, not all readers are created equal. Nonetheless, the general public would be very surprised to know how much prisoner reading gets done, and I’m tickled as a writer to see how books are a big part of the show.
My favorite stories to write in my memoir were those of my fellow prisoners because I got to know them again, better in some ways, because I could live with all their large stories, compressed and therefore concentrated in my memory. And I could relish their extreme language, their posturing, their sly kindness, their vitality, while now outside, and I could admire how they had not given up even though they had been behind bars for so long. Some of them became my heroes the longer I spent out here.
So I’ve really been enjoying how this series is mostly reminding me of the various enjoyments behind bars (I did yoga at the end), helping me recall the many colorful people I actually liked in there. Like Jamaican “Fruit Man” who every day sold fruit smuggled from the kitchen. Or Hawaiian Rich, pornographer, who would let you rent a skin mag for the evening for a pack of smokes. Panama, a Latino Muslim, let you buy one spray of his perfumed prayer oil for your visit with your wife or girlfriend.
One night in my cell, locked in, lights out, I found a can of Dr. Pepper and a Snickers under my pillow. It was my birthday. The next day my friends asked if I found my gift.
When I first wrote to Piper I recommended that each night she write down the funniest thing she heard that day. Or write down the saddest line. (This was one way I tried to inspire her to turn “doing time” into an active thing, in the vein of “Do your time, so your time don’t do you.”) I encouraged her to listen, to bring out the voices. Piper spotted the power of those stories and wrote them down, and now Jenji Kohan has skillfully turned them into the best prison dramedy I’ve seen on TV or the web.
“Every sentence tells a story” is the tagline for Orange Is The New Black. I watched the entire series in three days for the same reason we read good books: Not because they are always true, but because smart, strong stories with heart liberate our imaginations, never imprison them.
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