Orange Is the New Black Season Four and Intersectional Social Justice, Part One [SPOILERS]
The System vs. The Inmates
Netflix’s Orange is the New Black has always been a bastion of diversity. It’s a mostly female, multi-ethnic, multi-racial cast that includes people of all sexualities and gender expressions. However in its most recent season, the show’s fourth, it looks at issues of privilege more powerfully than it ever has before. Racism, sexism, ableism, and classism are explored within the system keeping the women of Litchfield imprisoned (which you’d expect), among the women themselves, and among the guards (in ways you might not expect).
Season 4 of Orange is the New Black is its most substantive yet, which also makes it the most emotionally draining season of the show. It hits real-world issues hard, and as we see the effects of the prison industrial complex on both the prisoners and the guards on the show, we can see how important it is for social justice work to be intersectional.
Litchfield Penitentiary is a women’s prison, and so everything the prisoners experience, from racism to classism to ableism, is compounded by sexism. This is most clearly visible when we look at the way the prison system acts upon them in the show’s most current season.
Litchfield has become a for-profit prison under Management & Correction Corporation (MCC), and so it has taken in many new inmates, causing severe overcrowding that leads to increased tension and violence among inmates. At the top of S4, the new warden/”Director of Human Activities”/corporate stooge, the ever-inept Joe Caputo, along with his dwindling, inept staff are overwhelmed by the changes and are trying to deal with the the prisoner escape to the lake through a hole in the fence that carried over from Season 3. Caputo calls in help in the form of guards from the maximum facility prison and that help arrives.
The new guards, led by Desi Piscatella, have military experience, along with the idea that prisoners cease to be human the moment they’re incarcerated. This does not bode well for the inmates at Litchfield.
Piscatella is one of, if not the most frightening new element of this new regime. A man for whom order and discipline matter above basic human dignity, who sees his prisoners as animals — clearly showing preference to white prisoners, but ultimately thinking of all of them as subhuman. This is made clear in a storyline involving the show’s main protagonist, Piper Chapman, and her increasing conflict with the Latina prisoners. After having gotten her booty call, Stella, sent to maximum security prison by framing her after Stella stole from her and endangered her covert prison panty business, Piper started thinking of herself as “gangsta, with an ‘a’.” However, when the influx of new prisoners means an influx of Latinas, suddenly the power in the prison has shifted, and the Latina contingent starts making bigger plays for control over “business” at Litchfield, led by the newly-hardened Maria Ruiz.
To stem the competition, Piper appeals to Piscatella’s racism by approaching him in her best Nice White Lady tone (this is something I’ll come back to later in this piece) and “reporting” that she’s noticed big gatherings of Latinas happening….that looks like “gang activity.” He believes her, because she’s a Nice White Lady, and suddenly there’s a crackdown on Latina inmates; a crackdown that eventually leads to Ruiz getting more years on her sentence, which makes Piper a bigger target.
But I’ll talk about all that later. What I want to address here is Piscatella, who in addition to being one of the worst people ever is also revealed to be gay in Episode 5. When Piper reports that the “women of a certain noble heritage” are “gathering” in “clusters,” she attempts to seal her new alliance with a concerned Piscatella with flattery. But when she tells him she likes his beard, he says, “I’ve had a beard since tenth grade. Two, actually. The one on my face, and the one I took to Junior Prom.” In response to Piper’s dumbfounded expression, he then says, “Yeah. I like dudes. I will never find you adorable. Keep that in mind.”
It’s a moment that is at once hilarious and frightening. He is reminding her that, despite his taking her “safety concerns” into account (because she’s a scared Nice White Lady), that he still owns her, and has zero interest in anything other than information that she has to offer.
It’s an interesting choice to have this particular character be gay in this context. As the series progresses, it’s clear that Piscatella is running the prison, not Caputo (he’s too busy nurturing a really gross relationship with a horrible, female MCC rep), and that he’s running it with an iron fist with little to no regard for the lives of the women in his care. In previous seasons, we’ve had several guards have inappropriate sexual relationships with inmates. Sometimes consensual, sometimes not. And as we know, even consensual relationships aren’t legally consensual in prison, because of the guard-inmate power dynamic. Consent isn’t possible in those circumstances.
Still, guards could previously be swayed away from violence or further abuses through the promise of sexual favors. It is often one card these marginalized women have to play. With Piscatella, they don’t even have that card. They are absolutely nothing to him in every way. It’s the ultimate symbol of just how little women matter to the system.
There is a definite racial hierarchy to how the women are marginalized by the prison industrial complex throughout this season. As I mentioned up top, the white prisoners are favored, and are often the last ones to be singled-out or corrected. In fact, when a white celebrity chef named Judy King arrives at the prison, her celebrity status gets her preferential treatment, and her whiteness gets her a white, mild-mannered roommate in Yoga Jones.
Meanwhile, the Latinas are the first major target since they’ve become the most numerous. In addition to Piscatella’s “war on prison gangs,” which finds the Latinas being randomly searched, molested, and under more intense scrutiny, there’s the sadistic guard Humphrey, who singles out Maritza for heinous abuse on her van runs, including making her eat a live baby mouse after overhearing her and Flaca debating which they’d rather do: eat one live baby mouse or lots of dead roaches. And then there’s Idiot, Yes-Man CO Stratman, who makes Flores stand on a table until she agrees to shower, which she’s only not doing to keep from being illegally racially profiled. She ends up standing there for several days, soiling herself, and falling asleep standing up.
The black inmates are “spared” by the system in the beginning of the season (if you can call it that) with more of the guards’ attention on the Latinas. However, as the guards become increasingly violent, they begin to bear the brunt of that violence with tragic results. Once Humphrey is done toying with the Latinas, he forces a distressed Suzanne to fight another prisoner for sport in a move that seems inspired by fictional “mandingo fighting.” Pushed to her limits by Kukudio needling her, Suzanne ends up beating her to a bloody pulp, much to Humphrey’s disgusting delight.
This is one of two storylines this season where gender, race, and mental health meet. Suzanne has been to the prison’s psych ward before, but has been terrified of it since the beginning of the show. While we don’t see much of it, we know that Psych is not somewhere that any inmate wants to be sent, and so Suzanne fights to do her best every day to not be sent there. When Humphrey singles her out to fight, it’s clear that he’s doing so because she’s a black inmate, and he wants to watch her fight a white inmate. It’s also clear that he knows she’s vulnerable and not in the best mental health, and he uses that knowledge to prod her toward violence.
And then there’s Lolly, the conspiracy theorist whose mental health is even shakier. Her belief that she’s being pursued by covert government agencies fuels her every move, including defending Alex from a guard who’s actually a hit man that’s been sent to kill her. Lolly beats him within an inch of his life and thinks she killed him, then can’t keep quiet or calm about it. Teetering between reality and the world in her head, she slowly starts to lose control. CO Healy — despite being a racist, sexist douchebag — is drawn to helping Lolly, because as we come to learn, his mother also suffered from mental illness and eventually left the family, never to be seen again.
Neither his help, nor the help of her fellow prisoners can help Lolly’s issues, however, and so Healy eventually sends Lolly to Psych. Which would be great if it were guaranteed that she’d get the help she needs there. However, from what little we’ve seen of Psych, we can gather that it’s basically a place where mentally ill inmates are strapped to beds and kept docile with meds. It’s about as helpful to the mentally ill as the SHU is. Because people at the bottom of the privilege totem pole don’t deserve mental health.
Meanwhile, inmates like Morelli and Kukudio, who clearly have mental health issues, are completely ignored and allowed to wallow in their own fantasy worlds, the pressures of prison life putting an even greater strain on their already delicate psyches.
One of the most tragic stories of the season happens at the intersection of race and gender. Last season, after a fight between Sophia and Gloria over their sons, and transphobic comments and rumors spread by Aleida leading to her being harassed and targeted by other inmates, Sophia is put into solitary confinement “for her own protection” after she threatens to sue MCC for their horrible security. There, she remains well into Season 4, and we watch as she slowly unravels.
The fact that Sophia is mostly forgotten — except by her wife, who continually fights to know what’s going on with Sophia, and Sister Ingalls, who gets herself thrown into the SHU in an attempt to communicate with her — highlights two very important real-world issues. 1) Transgender people of color have a higher rate of being incarcerated than white trans people (47% compared to 12% of white trans people according to The National Transgender Discrimination Survey), and 2) prisons are ill-equipped and not properly trained and supervised when it comes to dealing with trans prisoners. Sophia is one of the lucky ones in that she was placed in a prison that matches her gender identity, as most trans people are not. But still, she was subjected to solitary confinement, jeopardizing her physical and mental health. Thankfully, she’s now back in general population.
It is a black inmate that suffers the ultimate injustice at the end of the season, a season that launched in the thick of the Black Lives Matter movement and proved an elegant commentary on real-world events. Since the beginning of the show, Poussey Washington has been one of Litchfield’s most likable inmates. Small, kind, and charming, she rarely had conflicts with anyone (except with Vee, who had conflicts with everyone in Season 2). This season, she found a new relationship with an inmate, Brook Soso, became friends with one of her TV idols, Judy King, and started thinking seriously about her life after Litchfield. Sadly, there will be no life after Litchfield for her.
As the inmates stage a silent protest against the increasingly violent staff, a riot ensues, and CO Bayley — the youngest, most childish CO — follows Piscatella’s orders to grab Suzanne (of course, under this regime, making sure to round up the prisoners of color is of the utmost importance). Suzanne immediately becomes violent due to the chaos and attacks him. Poussey grabs Bayley to try to pull him away from Suzanne, but he tackles Poussey to the ground so she’s lying on her stomach with his knee on her back and his hand on the back of her neck. As he tries to defend himself against Suzanne (whose treatment by by Humphrey has riled her up to this state), he fails to notice Poussey is dying from compression asphyxia, her last words being “I can’t breathe” (echoing Eric Garner) and “Get off me.”
After this tragic event, MCC is more concerned with its reputation in the press than it is about fixing any problems at the prison. Poussey’s body is left on the floor in the cafeteria for three days as Caputo fights with MCC and MCC stalls to come up with their strategy. Caputo doesn’t even call Poussey’s family to tell them about her death until just before a scheduled press conference, and only at Taystee’s insistence. Black lives clearly do not matter. And then, the ultimate betrayal…
Throughout the season, Caputo vacillated between his conscience and his desire for greater power within the new MCC system. He seemed sympathetic to the prisoners’ needs, and often seemed genuinely concerned for their welfare, even though his hands were often tied by the corporation. When he finally takes the mic during a press conference about Poussey’s death, the viewer thinks that he’s going to throw out MCC’s prepared statement, go rogue, and tell the truth of what happened. He does go rogue, but rather than tell the truth — that he lost control of his prison and allowed a militant, racist, sexist guard to take control and cause all the conditions that lead to this death — he instead throws CO Bayley under the bus, blaming this individual guard’s incompetence.
The prisoner’s are infuriated by this final act of cowardice, and refuse to take it anymore. In a rare moment of solidarity among all the prisoners, they storm the main entrance of the prison. Humphrey — sadistic bastard that he is — brought an illegal firearm into the prison to “protect himself” from the inmates. Well, it’s that very gun that ends up falling to the ground and leads to this lat moment in the Season Finale:
After a season of simmering, the injustices endured by these all-female, mostly non-white inmates comes to a boil in a final moment that could change everything. We don’t know whether or not Daya, who’s been hardening all season thanks to news about her baby in foster care and her mother’s release from Litchfield, will pull the trigger or not. What we do know is that every single injustice I’ve written about in this post was directly caused by the conditions created by institutionalized sexism, racism, transmisogyny, and ableism. And every single one actually happens in prisons across the country. Yes, Orange is the New Black is just a TV show, but it spotlights problems that are all too real.
In Part Two, I’ll be talking about how these intersections were explored as racial, ethnic and religious differences, class issues, and misogyny come to a head, not only among the inmates themselves, but amongst the guards. See you tomorrow!
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