Since Nathan Goodman has asked me to fill in for him this week on The Weekly Abolitionist, I’d like to focus on something important to radical political struggles that isn’t talked about much: fiction.
As prison abolitionists, we can talk at length about the ways that prisons as such encourage abuse, add to recidivism, interlock with other oppressive systems like white supremacy, and are inherently unjust. Yet, for some people to really “get it,” something more is required.
At the time I’m writing this, I’ve finished about a season and a half of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, which is set in a women’s prison and loosely based around the real-life Piper Kerman’s prison memoir of the same title. Though it does not take an abolitionist outlook toward the prison system, it is a perfect example of the kinds of stories that need to be told. (It’s not for nothing that the show has even received praise from Angela Davis.)
Most significantly, Orange Is the New Black humanizes prisoners. Rich character development is one of the show’s strong-suits, and that helps to remind viewers that those suffering behind bars are real, flesh and blood people.
By showing flashbacks to their lives on the outside, we see that prison inmates are usually nothing like the caged monsters that are typically imagined in popular discourse surrounding them. They are often much like us, and it becomes difficult to sanction their sentences in good conscience.
Both on the outside and in prison, we seem them capable of compassion, meaningful human bonds, and all sorts of impressive achievements. For most of them, we see otherwise normal women who made one big mistake, not ongoing threats who need to be physically removed from the outside society.
Furthermore, we see that the condition of prison does not rehabilitate these women, but instead hardens them. Women who would normally never even think of hitting another person come close to murder, because of the situation created for them by the prison.
The show’s strong character development is present not only in the inmates, but also the staff, which further helps the show’s utility for abolitionists. This is because when we look at the staff of the show’s prison, we (mostly) don’t see sociopaths. We see ordinary people whose positions of power either require them or bring them to do extraordinarily awful things.
It’s not enough to just change out the people running the prison, because it would still end up looking roughly the same. The problems are structural, not personal.
It is difficult to imagine any situation (at least in the contemporary United States) where one person has as much near total control over another person and their life as a prison guard has over a prisoner. As we should expect, this brings out the worst in those given free rein to do whatever they want with or to others.
For example, in everyday life, one man’s homophobia may be unlikely to ever actually materialize as actual violence. But that same man, when given the power to do so, thinks nothing of sending a prisoner to solitary as part of his temper tantrum against her attraction to women. He feels entitled to do so precisely because of how sharply subordinate prisoners are to the staff.
That incident brings us to another important feature of the show. While its portrayal of prison in general is clearly not pleasant, it reveals solitary confinement for what it is: Hell. Solitary confinement is nothing short of torture, and it is difficult to say otherwise when watching the scenes that take place there.
A character cries out to herself in pain, and a soft voice answers back on the other side of the wall. Even this small amount of human interaction is a godsend, and she nervously asks “are you real?” The reply is chilling: “I don’t know.”
That is where the cramped isolation and dehumanization of solitary confinement leads, and the viewer can see it more clearly than they’d ever want to.
Viewers often assume that the show’s introduction – a sequence of eyes and mouths set to Regina Spektor’s “You’ve Got Time” – is made up of extreme close-ups of the show’s cast. The reality is that all of those faces are the faces of actual formerly incarcerated women.
This serves as a reminder that even for those events in the show that are entirely fictional, something like that has happened to someone, and something like that will happen to someone in the future (at least as long as we have prisons). It is just that sort of reminder that reveals the show’s real value.
By capturing our empathy, Orange Is the New Black forces us to acknowledge that when we accept the prison system, these are the women we are condemning to that life. It refuses to let us lazily fall back into the impersonal justifications we’ve rehearsed for as long as we’ve known about prisons.
We cannot just look away from the people we cage as we talk about why we cage them. We must look them in the eyes as we say it.
Art stirs people’s basic human sympathies toward action, and action is desperately needed to rid ourselves of the prison state. It is for this reason that we need more shows like Orange Is the New Black.