“Orange is the New Black” Rewrites the “Bad Prisoner” Stereotype

Recently on Tumblr, I came across pictures of pregnant women who were in prison. In these photos, women nursed babies, gave birth, and cared for their children, despite their prison sentence. One woman was handcuffed to a bed while giving birth. When I showed the pictures to a friend, he commented: “I wonder what they did to get in there.” Then he walked away. His response really struck me. We live in a culture where the presumption of guilt is often stronger than compassion or empathy, especially for imprisoned people. Orange is the New Black finds itself at the complicated juncture of trying to explore the causes and effects of women’s incarceration, while unpacking the very human emotions and motivations surrounding them. This makes for an interesting twist on the usual “bad prisoner” image we’re inundated with in the media, which also fuels the growth of the prison industrial complex.

The show’s second season launched on Netflix last Friday, and I immediately sat and watched half the season. This article contains some spoilers from the new season’s first seven episodes. The first episode began with confusion and mystery as Piper (Taylor Schilling), who we last saw in the middle of brutally beating Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) at the end of last season, is aggressively ushered onto a plane full of prisoners. She doesn’t know where she’s going and neither do we. As Piper reflects on her current sorry conditions, the show presents her childhood in flashbacks: her mom and other relatives teach her that lying is normal and that telling the truth is rarely the best idea. The father she looks up to as an ethical and honest person turns out to have his own hypocrisies. When the show flips back to the present, Piper is faced with another moral crisis as her ex-girlfriend Alex (Laura Prepon) pressures her to lie in court. I’ve never been the biggest fan of Piper’s character, but I appreciated final reminder of Alex’s smart manipulation of her.

Throughout Season 2, we are thrown into the past lives of characters we’ve wondered about last year. The following episodes explore the backgrounds of as the sweet, yet racist Morello (Yael Stone), the bold, tender-hearted Poussey (Samira Wiley), and honest, frank cancer patient, Miss Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat), whose struggles with love and loss figure significantly into their prison lives. When most media about prison shows incarcerated people as hardened criminals, it is both controversial and significant that Orange is the New Black’s new season revolves around stories of love: the twisted maternal love that a drug-dealing woman shows Taystee (Danielle Brooks) as a child, the painful love that Gloria (Selenis Leyva) has for her abusive boyfriend, the sensual, forbidden love that Poussey has for her German girlfriend, the difficult love the Healy (Michael Harney) tries to show his Ukrainian mail-order bride, and the seemingly fatal love that Miss Rosa has for each man she kisses before and after their robberies. Show creator Jenji Kohan and the series’ writers work hard to mold love into a driving force behind the motivations of these people, attempting to make them relatable and human. Most of the time, it works, especially with Lorna Morello.

a white woman with shoulder-length brown hair wears a veil, a purple scarf, and an orange prison-issued jacket

Yael Stone as Lorna Morella in Orange is the New Black (Netflix)

Australian actress Yael Stone portrays Morello, giving one of the most stirring performances on the show. In the first season, Morello talked endlessly about the wedding she was planning with her fiancé, Chris (Stephen O’Reilly). She passes the time as a prison van driver reading bride magazines and when she does a mock job interview at the beginning of the second season, Morello says her only ambition is to get married to Chris, make babies, and keep house. So it comes as a shock in the middle of the second season when she breaks down after receiving the news that her Chris is getting married to another woman. Stone plays the moment with extreme emotional weight; her eyes turn red and her voice quivers. Later, we find out that Morello’s relationship with Chris was entirely made-up—they only went on one date. She becomes even more fascinating as a sweet, charming, racist woman living in delusion, denial, and dreams, like so many people in the world. When she escapes from her prison driving duties to break into his house, wear his fiancé’s veil, and take a bath in his tub, we see she’s suffering from more than a broken heart.

The issues of mental health and old-age become all the more present this season, as characters suffer under a system and bureaucracy that cares little about their well-beings. A spirited old woman named Jimmy (Patricia Squire) has Alzheimer’s and manages to escape from the prison, searching for her long-lost lover “Jack,” and later jumps off the prison stage into a make-believe pool, injuring herself. Instead of providing her with treatment, she is granted “compassionate release,” a euphemistic term for the prison’s unwillingness to provide the specific care that she needs. Just imagining what would happen to this old woman on the streets made for a strong, sobering end to episode seven, and one that reminds us of the shortcomings in prison healthcare where true rehabilitation and treatment are often passed up and ignored at the expense of human life.

Meanwhile, the conniving new character Vee (played by Lorraine Toussaint) capitalizes on the acute intelligence and mental health issues of Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (Uzo Aduba). After years of being ostracized and laughed at. It turns out Suzanne has real loyalty and confidence—she emerges as a kind of misunderstood genius, a stark change from the stereotypical terrain she skirted in season one. These kinds of character detours are what make the show worthwhile. The added depth and contradictions subvert our assumptions about what the characters are like and they keep the storyline engaging. With the increasing tensions between the Black, Latina, and white prison groups, and the complex, troubled past lives we’ve learned about, Red (Kate Mulgrew) might’ve said it best: “You know this will not end well.”

by Nijla Mu'min
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Nijla is a writer, filmmaker, and essayist whose work can be found at www.nijlamumin.com.

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3 Comments Have Been Posted

Happily ever after

Wonderful article!

However, I feel you'll be pleased with the marvelous ending for this season.

We'll say, the season goes out in a blaze of glory.

I liked about 98% of the

I liked about 98% of the ending. The casual sexual coercion scene after Caputo gives files to the warden was disturbing. I think it was intended to be somewhat comedic though.

(Trying to avoid spoilers but you likely know what I'm referencing)

Yes, but...

Everything you discuss above is why this show is engaging and unique. However. I was troubled by the increase of gratuitous nudity shots featuring more mainstream-pretty bodies, especially headless ones (I felt last season was more realistically using nudity to emphasize the lack of privacy in prison and showed a wider variety of bodies). I was troubled by some of the sexual violence that seemed meant to be "funny" but only played as such because two women were involved. Most "funny" things on the show have a dark edge, of course, but a couple of moments felt like they were lacking a true context showing why they were problematic. I hope that as this show continues it will not slide into HBO-esque schlock but continue to ask harder questions and show more depth of character.