The Truth Behind OITNB Season 3
In the recently released third season of Orange is the New Black, Litchfield Prison faces a possible closure because of lack of funding, and is taken over by a private prison corporation. While Orange is the New Black (OITNB) does not always capture the true brutalities of the prison system, this prison privatization is not confined to the world of fiction, nor to the federal prison system.
In 2011, the United States Supreme Court ruled that California’s prisons were overcrowded to the point of cruel and unusual punishment and ordered the state to release thousands of incarcerated people. Private prisons became a part of California’s strategy to end overcrowding. They were present in California before, dating back to 1999, but private prison corporations seized the moment of crisis.
By 2014, nearly 9,000 Californians were held in out of state private prisons in Arizona, Mississippi, and Oklahoma, far away from their families. An additional 4,170 people are housed in seven private prisons within California.
These private prisons have many of the same problems highlighted in OITNB, such as hiring officers with no experience and giving them little or no the job training, which leads to guards overreacting. In OITNB, a new CO (correctional officer) pepper sprays two women that have gotten into a scuffle without warning. He has been given just a few hours of training on when to use force.
This fictional scenario is backed up in the real world where private prison guards are sent out unprepared. “Staff are fairly ‘green’ across all shifts,” “are not proficient with weapons,” and “habitually ignore sounding alarms” read a memo between officials in Arizona State Corrections, referring to a private prison in the state.
In addition, prison labor for profit is an unfortunate reality. In OITNB, following privatization, the characters compete for a job that will pay $1 an hour, significantly more than other prison jobs: sewing underwear for Whispers, a lingerie company.
This is a thinly veiled version of Victoria’s Secret, which used prison labor in the 1990’s. Victoria’s Secret is not alone: According to an Alternet article, BM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Wireless, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, 3Com, Intel, Northern Telecom, TWA, Nordstrom's, Revlon, Macy's, Pierre Cardin, [and] Target have all used labor from incarcerated people.
Wages paid to incarcerated people by these corporations are typically not more than 1.25 an hour (and can go down to 23 cents, or even no pay at all). Small-scale food companies have also recently started using prison labor to produce food like goat cheese and tilapia, which is then sold at Whole Foods. However, the relationship between prison labor and private prisons is not as clear as the show makes it seem.
Of course, these problems exist in government-run prisons as well. Unprepared and abusive guards, inhumane conditions, far below minimum wage labor, sexual assault and the profit motive can all be found in the public prison system. In fact, the sad reality is that these profit-making jobs in the prison system pay far more than prison upkeep jobs (which tend to pay near nothing), and therefore become highly competitive.
Black Cindy and Piper get into a heated discussion about which is worse. Both have fair points, and the fact is, either way, the prison-industrial complex is exploitative. Corruption, abuse and violence were rampant at Litchfield before privatization, as well as afterwards.
The same is true in reality. However, it is important to look at the ways that privatization impacts accountability and exploitation. OITNB (which cannot always be trusted to provide a realistic picture of prison conditions) has in this case exposed a truth about one of the many issues in the American criminal justice system, and will hopefully create the awareness necessary for a change.
Ultimately though, the problem is bigger than what wages are paid to people in prison or who is profiting. For change to truly occur, we need to rethink our criminal justice system in a more fundamental way and stop responding to social ills with punishment solutions.
It is a cruel irony that lack of job opportunities often contributes to incarceration, yet the same people are forced into labor for miniscule wages once they arrive in prison. The way forward is to reinvest our resources in education, healthcare, housing, and job training, so that all communities have the opportunity to prosper.