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The Real vs. The Unreal in America's Prisons
By Christine Stoddard
I recently finished watching the complete first seasons of “Orange is the New Black,” thanks in part to my horrible Netflix binging habit, but more so because it's a fascinating show. American prison systems—and our societal perceptions of them—need a make-over. Unfortunately, this make-over can't be fixed with a glittery lipgloss and the oh-so-perfect shade of eyeshadow. “Orange is the New Black,” while in some ways problematic, starts a serious dialogue our country should be having instead of focusing on the engagement of One Direction's Zayn Malik. (I promise that wasn't click bait.) Before I proceed, I'm inserting a spoiler alert, so no whining. I warned you.
One of the scenes that most resonates with me is the one where Piper's on the phone with Larry after his guest appearance on NPR. Remember how he wrote that “Modern Love” column for The New York Times? The one that demonized all of Piper's jail mates and made her seem like the perfect little W.A.S.P. princess? Yeah, problematic.
Piper was horrified because Larry was relating her personal experiences, as if he had the authority to describe a life he had never lived and paint a picture of people he had never met. It's like those fake ethnic memoirs white men have written over the years for what—street cred? Money? Fame? If you're not Chicano, don't pretend to be Chicano, unless you've done thorough research and are writing FICTION. In which case, you're not actually pretending to be anyone but yourself, an author, who does not claim to be your protagonist.
Same goes for pretending to be an inmate. Don't pretend to know what it's like to be behind bars if you've never suffered that kind of misery. Don't go on a national radio show and tell the (mostly) white, educated listeners what terrors your poor, white girlfriend faces in prison. You were invited on the show to discuss how your fiance's sentence has affected your relationship; you were not invited to cast judgment on women whose full stories you know nothing of. In some ways, prison is worse than you can imagine, Larry, and in other ways (admittedly very few ways), it might be better. Did it ever occur to you, Larry dear, that Piper might have warmed up to some of her fellow prisoners? That, because of their shared experience, she can at least start to see these women beyond their crimes and the stereotypes associated with their class and race?
Larry is not alone in thinking of so many prisoners as somehow “less” than a person like Piper. Piper is white, thin, college-educated, articulate, and well-read. Or a “nice blonde lady,” as Piper calls herself. She represents our society's image of an upstanding female citizen. This is not the same image our society has created of the average female inmate: black or brown, poor, and a high school drop-out who probably suffers health problems, like A.I.D.s or obesity, to boot. Society has proven time and time again that it believes that women like Piper don't “belong” in jail. Just look at the statistics. Our national imagination isn't very imaginative.
Do black and brown women commit more crimes than white women? I don't think so. If you're a white woman, please stop for a moment and reflect upon any laws you might've broken over the years. And if you're a goody-goody like me, think about the laws your white friends, acquaintances, and family members have broken over the years. It's like Officer Fischer tells Piper at one point: “The difference between you and me is that you got caught.”
Right now there's a big controversy in my home city of Washington, D.C. where police officers have been accused of stopping and frisking a disproportionate number of black youth. Strangely—eye roll—a light-skinned suburban girl like me was never once stopped and frisked while hanging out in Chinatown in high school. Many of these young adults are simply walking through the streets, trying to get to school, work, or a social engagement like their white counterparts. So why are the black kids targeted more often than the white ones? I'm thinking of a word that begins with “r” and ends in “acism.” And please don't use the trite excuse that Washington is a black-majority city. It's not. The days of a chocolate city with vanilla suburbs are over. Some things DO change. Racism, at least for now, is not one of them. Same for classism, sexism, and other unpleasant -isms.
Now let's assume that black and women do commit more crimes than white women. Well, it's probably because so many of them are desperate. Sure, there are bad apples, but there are also women who are denied welfare because they're just barely financially overqualified, but have children to feed no matter what. It's like Jean Valjean in Les Misérables: If you're stealing to feed yourself, is that really a crime? In the words of anarchist group Food Not Bombs, food is a right, not a privilege.
Piper did not commit a crime out of desperation. It's not clear why she did, whether for the thrill of it or because she loved Alex or at least wanted to impress her. In this case, her motive does not matter because she was not facing any true need. Feeling aimless after graduating from college is not good enough of an excuse. Piper had resources, resources most of her fellow inmates did not have. There's a reason her prison nickname is “College.”
Watching Piper flail in prison has renewed my interest in learning how inmates actually live. The jail in my city offers a creative writing program taught by English students at my alma mater. One of my friends participated in the program, but had little to say about the experience. I imagine it is something you must do to understand. Knowing the writers and at least a bit about their trials and tribulations gives you a different perspective when reading their writing. It's an exercise in empathy, something Larry–and America–needs to practice.
When I was about 20, I received a letter from a man on death row. He had read a couple of my poems in a California literary magazine and said that they gave him hope. He shared a couple of ideas he had for poems, too. I never wrote back, a move I now regret. But I was scared. This man was a stranger and had at least allegedly committed a monstrosity. I did not think that he may have been wrongly accused or a victim of circumstance or a sinner who had done his fair share of repenting. I let fear cloud my mind. I wish I had thought about his fear and regret instead and perhaps written him letters that comforted him during the last several weeks of his life.
But our society puts it in our heads that inmates are to be feared, not empathized. I started tearing up when I watched the scene where Sophia, the transexual, stopped receiving her hormones because of proclaimed prison budget cuts. That's exactly the sort of predicament most of us who have never been to prison don't imagine happening.
What I would like to see more of in “Orange is the New Black,” or perhaps a spin-off, is the prison experience from someone other than Piper. While we do get some insight into the other characters' lives, there's no question that Piper is the protagonist. I want the story to be told from a black or brown or working-class white woman's perspective.
But, hey, I already have my cake: It's a popular fiction TV show that focuses on social issues. I'll have to wait for my ice cream.
P.S. I know that I use jail and prison interchangeably throughout this essay. Please attribute it to artistic license. For those of you who insist on me making the distinction public, I cite Diffen.com.