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8 Things OITNB Got Right About Women’s Prisons (And 8 Things They Got Wrong)

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8 Things OITNB Got Right About Women’s Prisons (And 8 Things They Got Wrong)

One of the first shows that put Netflix on the map, Orange is the New Black is a major hit. Based on a real story, the series focuses on Piper Chapman, a white-collar gal who made a mistake drug dealing years before and pays for it by going to Litchfield Prison. The series is powerful as a dark comedy and showing quite a lot of hot ladies around in various circumstances. The show bounces between comedy and powerful drama such as an inmate death and a prison riot as well as the complex politics. It draws fans in with its in-depth characterization and flashbacks showing how these women turned out this way. The series is a huge success and every season among the most binged on Netflix to help put that service on the map. However, this does lead to the question of how much of the show is true to life.

It’s obvious liberties are taken quite a lot. From how prison life works to the way the women carry themselves and more, it’s clear the series shows a view of prison life that’s a bit better than the real thing. However, it’s surprising how much of the show is actually quite true to life. Several women who have been in prison have spoken on the show and while many note the stuff totally wrong, they also credit the series with how much it gets right. From the way the women look to how they live, to how a prison is set up to the justice system itself, the show is capable of taking liberties to being all too true to life. Here are eight things OITNB gets right about female prisons and eight they get wrong to make you see the series in new light.

16. RIGHT: The Stereotypes Exist

It’s easy to think that OITNB lends itself to clichés and such with the characters. Piper is a white-bread girl thrown into a dirty world; the Latinos are feisty; the black gals are loud and abrasive; Pennsatucky is rather obnoxious with her religion and more. However, clichés exist for the reason that quite often, they’re for real. Many a female inmate has stated that every prison is packed with people just like the ones you see on the show. You get the older ladies who have been around and are sardonic in their viewpoints; the rather butch lesbian types who get around a lot; Christian cons do tend to be incredibly over the top in their worship (complete with “you’re all going to Hell” talk to their fellow inmates) and ladies who had more upscale lives look down on others. It happens constantly, including the “pecking order” and how some ladies think it’s better to be in a real prison than a county jail. Also, it’s for real that women in jail do tend to be a lot hornier than they are on the outside and eager to release tension constantly. So before you dismiss the characters as unrealistic, know that they really are truer to life than they seem.

15. WRONG: Personal Time Comes Easily

You want personal time at a prison? Get solitary confinement. That’s the mantra of many an inmate. On the show, prisoners are able to take the time for long telephone calls that are able to speak volumes. In reality, time is very limited as you have a long line of ladies who will act up on anyone wasting their precious time. Conjugal visits are a thing but nowhere near as common as they seem, you have to schedule them far in advance and lucky to get more than one a year. Also, visits from family and friends are quite limited due to various rules and issues and can actually take more of a personal toll mentally from having them see you like this.

As for personal space, it’s almost non-existent. Cells are even more crowded than on the show and there’s meal times, work times and more. On the series, ladies are able to get away easy for hook-ups but that doesn’t happen as you have to almost be public about when you’re “doing it” with screens and blankets set up around the cells. From bathroom time to just sleeping, you’re almost never alone in prison and while that might be good in some ways, the lack of utter privacy takes its own toll on many a mind.

14. RIGHT: Life As An Ex-Con Is Hard

A powerful scene is when one inmate manages to get parole and is freed, getting a good send-off party from her friends. But just weeks later, she breaks parole and is right back inside. When one chastises her for not “making it,” the woman fires back with how horrible life as an ex-con is with bad minimum wage jobs, no one hiring someone with a record and the fact you owe the prison money. This is sadly all too true as too many prisoners find life inside so much easier than out. The above complaints don’t count how drug users have to have constant urine checks and tests and the temptations of going back to their old ways.

That’s also how many of these women land in jail in the first place. Piper just carried a suitcase of drugs, was hit by massive federal charges and got a plea deal because she didn’t want to risk an even larger sentence if found guilty. Too many women have made the same mistake, facing almost impossible odds because of how unfair the court system is, especially with minorities. That leads to how, in jail, the guards and staff hold the power and wield it in often harsh ways. That’s brought up in the riot episodes and showcases the sad reality on how female prisoners lose a lot more than you think.

13. WRONG: There Are No Personal Accessories

On the series, the women can be identified by various personal stuff. Morella has her scarf, Pennsatucky has her hoodie, the various ladies of the ethnic groups have their hairdos, tattoos, pins and more. It works for TV, making them stand out and touches on their personal characteristics. However, that’s a serious liberty as real jails don’t allow their prisoners such personal touches. One point is that it’s all too easy to turn something like a comb or other item into a weapon. It’s why bits like the ladies allowed file nails, screwdrivers and such are impossible, no way a real jail lets an inmate bring stuff like that to their rooms. More importantly, prisons want to treat the prisoners as just numbers, not making them feel human. As such, denying them personal touches that make them feel unique is forbidden and even encouraged not to be used. Prisoners want them all to be bland and not standing out at all to enhance the experience. So while the show can enjoy the ladies looking unique, you wouldn’t see these fashions in a real jail.

12. RIGHT: Never Ask What You’re In For

One of the first scenes of the series is Piper being asked what she’s in prison for and replies she heard you shouldn’t ask that. As it happens, this is true. Sure, folks can volunteer if they want to but they mostly keep it to themselves. That plays on the show as most of the other inmates think Morella is in for some minor crime, not for stalking and attempted murder. As it happens, this is pretty much an unspoken code in jail, folks not volunteering what they’re accused of. Some like to use it to make themselves look more impressive than they really are, spread out the intimidation which helps them survive. But it also shows a bit of remoteness and inmates prefer to keep to themselves and their own issues and often don’t really care about the lives of others. You almost never see the gals talk their own issues which is why the audience learns more via the flashbacks of their lives. The fact is that most prisoners keep what their lives on the outside were to themselves rather than broadcast their crimes to others.

11. WRONG: It’s Too Clean

Yes, the show can get grimy at times. There was, after all, the plotline about a garbage strike and the place packed with mountains of trash in bags. But overall, you look at Litchfield and it looks almost spotless from the halls to cafeteria to the cells themselves. This is a far contrast from actual prisons as even the better ones have a sense of disgust about them constantly. Personal hygiene is not a priority for a lot of prisoners and many just toss stuff around like it’s a college dorm. Cleaning is meant as a punitive punishment so they don’t put a lot of effort into it. It’s like a teen forced to mop up his own home, they don’t really care too much and thus barely do anything. Meanwhile, the prisons themselves don’t have the funding or the staff for a major cleaning and thus the jails should be a whole lot dirtier. Suffice to say, the ladies of Litchfield should be a whole lot more worried about their hygiene than they are.

10. RIGHT: Small Things Have Big Consequences

Orange Is the New Black

Piper makes several mistakes in prison, some of which are minor but lead to big consequences. For example, she makes an offhand comment about how poor Red’s food is and Red replies by basically starving her for two weeks. She and Alex do some “dirty dancing” and it leads to solitary confinement. You might think this is some sort of bizarre retribution but as it happens, real prisons do this a lot. A minor offense can be slammed by the staff and get you in hot water. Also, prisoners can be upset over something you think can be nothing but they see as a huge deal and cost you goodwill. It goes the other way too; on the show, Piper gets back in Red’s good graces with some lotion. This is also true as a simple act of helping an inmate with a good meal or giving up TV/phone privileges for them can lead to some appreciation later from protection to better treatment. Good behavior can be rewarded as well and thus how careful you have to be in jail to make sure something tiny is affected the right way.

9. WRONG: You Can Sue A Prison

A big plot in season 2 is Pennsatucky threatening to sue the prison for an injury she suffered. The response by Captain Healey is to be so afraid that he pays for her to get her teeth fixed. In real life, the likely response would be Healey laughing his head off and Pennsatucky stuck with a busted mouth. The sad truth is that civil liability has passed on the way in American prisons. Technically, you can sue but most don’t even bother as the results are the same: It’s their fault. That’s the mantra prisons take, anything that occurs to an inmate is their own doing and the prison is not responsible. To be fair, many civil suits by inmates in the past involved such minor things as not having the right peanut butter or “religious freedoms” that really meant just doing what they want. So it’s understandable why courts started tossing that stuff.

Sadly, this means prisoners who suffer true injuries or assaults, the courts look the other way. It’s called Sovereign Immunity and is held up by every prison as a, for lack of a better term, get out of jail free card for any legal trouble. The brutal truth is courts tend to see prisoners as subhuman anyway so their “rights’ are almost nonexistent and thus any suit against a prison is a losing proposition.

8. RIGHT: The Guards Get Off Easy

It’s a sad thing but it’s all too true: Prison guards can almost literally get away with murder. When Mendez is busted for having sex with Diaz, he’s only placed on leave with Figueroa openly saying “I don’t want to put rape on your record right now.” That’s only one of several times a guard causes a mess and gets off with a slap on the wrist. Even when one causes a death that kicks off a riot, he gets off rather easily. This is all too true as quite often, if an inmate and a guard are caught, the inmate is the one who gets thrown in solitary or some other punishment while the staff member gets just a mark on the record. Thousands of cases of misconduct are made at guards a year by prisoners and while a percentage is of course prisoners causing trouble, the majority are for real. Yet it will take something truly extreme to get a guard fired as the unions protect him and the rights reside with him, not the prisoner. Thus, sadly, the show is all too correct in how the guards can get away with worse crimes than the inmates.

7. WRONG: You Wouldn’t Have Such Diversity

A major issue on the show is the division between the various ethnic groups of the prison. You have the whites, the blacks and the Hispanics who will mix it up in the lunch room and in various activities. While they clash, they do still hang together and work together. But a real prison would not have such diversity about.

For one thing, the brutal truth is that a private-run prison like Litchfield would cater more to Caucasians than ethnic groups. Even when they are together, you don’t see them gathering too much. A real prison lunch room has tables in sequential order, not like a high school and spacing is rare so you just grab what you can, eat and move on. Ethnic groups are actually divided in the prison to various different wings as staff knows the dangers of mixing such feisty natures together. Thus, you wouldn’t see someone as white-bread as Piper hanging out with Crazy Eyes so much. As for “yard time,” again, they stick to their own groups instead of mixing up in play and thus in a real jail, the diversity you see on the show wouldn’t exist.

6. RIGHT: Safe Passage Is Not So Safe

On the show, Healey tries to beef up morale by creating “Safe Passage,” a therapy group where everyone can share stories. In theory, this should mean the ladies bonding, sharing their issues and making common ground. However, Healey soon discovers what many real prisons have learned the hard way: programs like Safe Passage just make things worse, not better. The problem is that prisoners tend to be private about their own lives and not wanting to share, just do the time and get out and never see these people again. Soon, the place has ladies getting dirt on one another to use for blackmail for better treatment, perks and more. This is all too common, women have been known to take what’s said in this “safe place” and use it outside it, starting fights and more. Too many prisons have had to discontinue the practice although others still insist on using it, thinking it can help. Sadly, the fact is the attempts to create “safe bonding” just end up making things more dangerous inside.

5. WRONG: There’s Not That Much Skin

A big thing on OITNB is the abundance of nudity. From group showers to the various hook-ups, ladies are always flashing and that includes in front of male guards or staff. But most female inmates state there’s nowhere near that amount of skin showing in a real jail. Part of that is hygiene as real jails are a hell of a lot filthier than Litchfield is shown as being. Group showers are not an actual thing, most inmates do get their own stalls but the few places that do larger showers insist on having only a few women at a time in. That’s because of various privacy laws enacted to protect prisoners from staff abuse. Which means that if a male staffer were to see a nude woman, he’d be in serious trouble. That’s not to mention that there is no way a male staffer would be allowed to have a one-on-one meeting with a female prisoner, there would be some sort of supervision. Hook-ups do occur but hardly as romantic as the show would have you think with so many “secret hot spots” and such. While the nudity is a drawing card, the reality is that real jails are nowhere nearly as skin-baring as the series.

4. RIGHT: Hook-Ups In A Church

There are a lot of places ladies on the show hook up from bunks to a dirty laundry room. But most common is the huge church for their ladies having…fun. Some think this has to be dramatic license, the obvious juxtaposition between a house of worship and rather carnal acts. However, amazingly, in real women’s prisons, this is all too true. While inmates are denied a lot of things, the courts do uphold their First Amendment rights for worship. That includes even Native American ceremonies which is also an excuse for ladies getting high. Prisoners use the “freedom of association” for another method which is getting close. So yes, churches are used which is notable for how most places don’t have the huge space of a cathedral Litchfield does but just a small room with benches. It may sound bizarre but it’s all to true as some ladies flex their “freedom” in unique ways.

3. WRONG: The Medical Care

On the series, inmates always get good care. A pregnant woman is treated well, everyone gets the meds they need and it’s handled well. Indeed, the staff nearly panics when a prisoner threatens to reveal they don’t have her proper medication as it would cause an ugly mess. Sadly, in reality, prisons don’t really care for all that. Even among the private company prisons, medical supplies are generally barely more than you’d find at your local pharmacy clinic, over the counter stuff. Forget specific types of insulin, most jails don’t even have more than painkillers and such. There’s mostly just one doctor on staff and the fact they’re working at a prison shows they don’t have that great skills. This is bad for pregnant women who can be denied the proper treatments for a healthy child. It’s also a reason too many jails are packed with mentally disturbed people, they lack the proper medication to treat their issues. Forget seeing the ladies lined up in hallways patiently awaiting their meds, a real jail would be lucky to give their inmates more than you’d pick up at your local Walgreens.

2. RIGHT: It Can Be A Literal Zoo

A running bit on the show was Red seeing a chicken wandering around the prison yard. At first, the others thought it was her cracking up but then they started seeing it and eventually made hunting it down a task. Audiences chuckled with some complaining this was going a little too far. But as it happens, amazingly, a lot of prisons do have wildlife around. Obviously, rats can be an issue, especially in the dirtier places. However, as prisons are in rather remote places for obvious reasons, they can attract wildlife around. Most common are geese who wander about the yard and can occasionally get through holes in a fence. Obviously, birds are common with their ability to fly into yards and up to windows and can even be adopted as pets. Some places are even known to attract hogs or the occasional wolf depending on their location. And yes, chickens can show up and either be adopted or, as on the show, killed for a meal. Thus, instead of being a TV liberty, the prison having its own wildlife is something that really happens.

1. WRONG: The Food

A big part of the show is Red (Kate Mulgrew), the chef who takes pride in her cooking. She ensures the food is great, doing her best and boasting of how she’s a fine chef. A bit plot was how Piper insulted the food and was made an outcast and a big clash between Red and others for control. Real inmates openly laugh their heads off at this as real prison food is horrible. Indeed, some have claimed they see boxes of supplies openly marked “not fit for human consumption.” Too often, the food in jail is nothing but slop to the point hunger strikes might seem a blessing. As for those preparing it, they treat it as nothing but another tough job they hate to perform and barely put much effort into it. Food can be undercooked, raw and no real care for what happens to those who eat it.

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