Twenty-five years ago, I, a hapless reporter on assignment, went to the DC Jail and met the woman who was to be my life partner. I interviewed her about her political bombing case; we fell in love; I visited her in various prisons for 11 years; she was released; we’re now spending the rest of our lives working out our relationship, which has much to do with politics and everything with what she went through in prison.
Whatta story, right? I haven’t written much about this because I’ve found it impossible to convey what prison did to us. But when I read Piper Kerman’s smart, funny, heart-grabbing “Orange Is the New Black” chronicling her year behind bars, I thought, “Whoa, she gets this.” Then I caught the Netflix series based on Kerman’s book. I now suspect the most lethal thing you can do to the truth about prison is to bring it anywhere near the entertainment industry.
From her book, Piper Kerman seems a standup person. Yes, like on Netflix, she’s a thin, white Smith graduate; yes, she’s got the confidence that comes from being told all your life that you and your people matter. But during her comparatively tiny 11-month stint in the Danbury prison camp on a drug conviction, Piper Kerman, for all her legal reserves, her family’s support, her fiancé’s devotion, realized she was as powerless as the scores of mostly poor women of all colors and cultures who did time alongside her.
Prison corrodes humanity layer by layer with absurd, bureaucratic cruelties. Inside, as my partner found, the best way to hang on to your soul is to actually see the people around you. This is what Piper Kerman did, and the bonds she forged with the women at Danbury changed her life. Kerman became alive to the fact that each of the 2.4 million women and men locked into U.S. “correctional” facilities — disproportionately people of color, almost all poor — possesses souls that weigh the same as her own. Kerman angled her book in this direction, and now that she’s out, she’s on the board of the Women’s Prison Association, working to change the punitive, lock-‘em-up mentality that created this nation’s prison system.
Which is why it hurts to see what was, in book form, a credible, compassionate story of women surviving prison, stream online as voyeuristic entertainment for anyone interested in mean-girl-sex-drug-snake-pit lockups. In this hierarchy of intimidation and deceit, shame trumps compassion almost every time. No wonder America loves this show.
Prison on Netflix looks authentic. Women have convincingly bad skin, rotten teeth, lumpy figures. But this docu-realism also works to shield shallowly conceived characters, many of whom verge on class and race caricatures. Black, Latina, poor white women, and — lest we forget — lesbians are trashy, self-hating, predatory, and come with precooked back stories involving poverty, drugs, abuse, etc., to explain how they got that way. Piper, on Netflix, becomes a self-avowed WASP narcissist who, before entering prison, begs her fiancé to “keep my website updated.” Inside, she likes fucking the ex-girlfriend who got her arrested. She also isn’t above turning in someone’s contraband to get what she wants from the corrections officers — who are portrayed one-dimensionally as sadistic or two-dimensionally as pitiful.
In transferring any work from page to stage it’s legitimate to alter the original. But “OITNB” the show goes way beyond this to disfigure the basic spirit of “OITNB” the book, refitting characters and storyline to suit TV’s definition of “gripping.”
In the book, for instance, Piper, new to prison camp, remarks that the food is so bad there ought to be a hunger strike. She doesn’t know the middle-aged Russian woman sitting across from her is the camp cook. The cook, though hurt, warns Piper not to mention hunger strikes if she wants to avoid solitary. But on Netflix, the cook seethes, and next day at breakfast, Piper finds a bloody tampon on her muffin — an unsubtle cue to the camp’s women that Piper is to be starved. Piper doesn’t eat for days, until she figures out how to make amends.
Crazy Eyes, in the book, is a Latina who had a crush on Piper, but who respectfully backs off after Piper explains she isn’t interested. Crazy Eyes, in the series, is a wigged-out black butch, who after being refused, sneaks into Piper’s cubicle to piss on the floor.
Occasionally, Netflix offers pockets of clarity: Poussey, a young black woman is able — desperately, ecstatically — to catch a last glimpse of her best friend Taystee as she’s led away on release; Sophia, the camp’s only transgender woman, confides in the activist nun. And despite the show’s moral incompetence, the actors are, for the most part, extremely competent, dimensional, skilled — and deserve better. But once you hear the opening lines of “OITNB”’s theme song, you know what the show’s about:
The animals, the animals
Trapped, trapped, trapped
‘til the cage is full…
I’m truly sorry. I know you probably love this show. Go on, enjoy this skanky soap opera. Definitely enjoy Season One’s fade-out — spoiler alert! — as Piper beats a psychotic white trash Jesus freak possibly to death during the Christmas pageant. Just please don’t think this teaches you about prison.
Here’s the thing. I’ve been visiting prisoners — women and men, state and federal — since 1988. I personally haven’t known life inside, but I know what it’s like to be the good friend of someone who will probably never get out. My partner’s 14-plus years inside color every aspect of our relationship and that will continue until one of us dies. And whether you know it or not, prison colors every aspect of your life in this country.
You want to see women in prison? Turn off your flat screen. Get involved. Teach a class. Write or visit someone inside. Maybe she’s had hot prison sex. Maybe she gets into fights. That’s hardly the point. What will probably shock you is how much you have in common.