This summer, I went to prison. Well, not actually, but I did watch Netflix’s original series “Orange is the New Black,” and therefore feel as though I am something of an authority on the subject of federal penitentiary. Piper Chapman, the show’s WASPy, neurotic protagonist, has led me on a tour of prison life, providing a kind of personal “scared straight” program.
After binge-watching the first season, I can pass on these lessons about the realities of prison (at least as they are portrayed by the dramedy’s creator Jenji Kohan and her troupe of actors):
If you are thinking about having a lesbian love affair with a drug dealer, think again. In fact, even a non-lesbian love affair with a drug dealer may be out of the question. The show is based on the memoir of Piper Kerman, who was sentenced to 15 months in prison for carrying drug money across international borders for her one-time flame, Alex. Piper’s Hollywood equivalent, actress Taylor Schilling, has more than convinced me that dating a drug dealer is not good life choice. If you are involved with a member of an international drug cartel, your life may be fabulous for several years and you may travel to tropical locations, but, in the end, you will be turned in and all you will see is the inside of a penitentiary in Litchfield, New York. This prison will look suspiciously like my old public elementary school, with cinderblock halls and laminated cafeteria benches and a general lack of privacy. In fact, both the toilet stalls in this fictional prison and at my elementary school lack functioning doors (a realization that made me question the state of public education in our country). Furthermore, your lesbian ex might reappear in prison and make things awkward with your fiancé (spoiler alert!).
When in prison, you will be meeting many, many people—so many people that you may have difficulty remembering their names. Seriously, OITNB has enough characters to employ the entire Screen Actors Guild. All the inmates will all be uniquely scary and unkempt, but you will still struggle to recall their monikers. Just smile and wave and hope they don’t stab you with a screwdriver. In addition, avoid anyone with the nickname Scary Eyes. Her unrelenting stares and Miley-Cryus-at-the-VMAs hairstyle are enough to make anyone cry.
Do not criticize the food or insult the cook. You might end up with a tampon sandwich. I don’t know about you, but I prefer to incorporate iron into my diet by eating spinach.
Don’t mock anyone for her religious beliefs. I mean, hopefully you wouldn’t do that anyway, but the women in prison may have more radical beliefs than those to which you are accustomed. If one of your inmates claims to be a miracle worker, do not set up a series of tricks to embolden her and then set her up to fail. It will not be as funny as you thought it would be, and she may come after you in revenge with a shank.
You will look bad in prison. There is no way around it. Despite the title of the series, you will not wear orange, and your outfit will not be trendy. You will wear dingy brown scrubs that make you look like a cardboard box. On the bright side, feel free to gain a few pounds, because nobody will notice.
Wash your face. From the beginning credits and accompanying Regina Spektor song “You’ve Got Time,” I am frightened. Garish, pierced, unwashed faces of dozens of incarcerated women flash across the scene as Regina croons about all the time you will have to reflect and gaze upon the ghastly faces of your fellow inmates. The effect is jarring, and vaguely revolting. I asked myself, “If I go to prison, will I look this horrible? More importantly, will people look at my face this closely?” It is worth avoiding prison just to keep up with your skincare. It seems that doing hard time is hard on your complexion.
Be racially ambiguous. In and out of the lunchroom, inmates on OITNB tend to help their own sisters out. Try to be equal parts Taylor Swift, Beyoncé Knowles, and Jennifer Lopez. That way, you can ask favors from all the ladies, and you will be an extraordinary singer.
Avoid the rapestache. Some prison guards have moustaches that are most often associated with porn stars and the more burly employees at Home Depot. They will shout obscenities at you and expect sexual favors. Do not follow them into a broom closet or the church. (Because yes, the prison’s church is a hotbed for sexual activity. The video cameras may not be rolling there, but, rest assured, God is watching and shaking his head.)
You will not have a cell phone in prison. That is reason enough to steer clear of a life of crime. You will not be able to tweet about how much prison sucks or snapchat pouty pictures or message your friends for advice. Prison will become your only reality. The actresses on the show certainly find their time in character (and thus away from their phones) grueling, because, as soon as they are done filming, they whip out their camera phones and release a flurry of group selfies on their Instagram accounts. Social media is an addiction, and prison is a difficult place to go through withdrawal.
Beware of the Solitary Housing Unit (SHU). Solitary confinement may cause you to start talking to yourself or with invented inmates. You may never recover your sanity. In addition, the guards seem to only serve rotting baloney, which is just gross. In conclusion, prison seemed entertaining and even humorous when I was snuggled in my bed, watching episode after episode of OITNB, but the inmates’ many struggles have had a lasting psychological effect. Recently, I was watching a news program which followed a group of women on parole, and I genuinely felt connected to them, like I knew what they had been through.
Their faces and stories felt familiar. They could have been Piper Chapman’s cellmates—they could have been my cellmates. Prison no longer feels like a faraway, vaguely scary idea, but instead like a close, particularly uncomfortable memory.
In a NPR interview of Jenji Kohan, the director noted, “Piper was my Trojan Horse.” Television network executives were not interested in the story of an underprivileged Latino woman going to jail, because that would not attract attention or boost ratings.
However, Piper, a white, preppy woman, is a character that is relatable to all white, preppy women (like myself), and thus she is marketable to a largely white television audience. Kohan has been able to use Piper as a tool to lure an unlikely audience into the annals of prison life. I certainly began watching the show because I was drawn to Piper’s story, but by the end of the season, I was more interested in the backstories of her various inmates. In reality, I know nothing of the genuine experience of going to jail, but at least Piper Chapman and the whole cast of OITNB have given the world (or those with access to Netflix) some insight into the perils of prison life. I, for one, may never break a law again or at least a law punishable by time in a medium security prison.