One Sentence, Two Prisoners
Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) has nothing but time on her hands. She is serving fifteen months for laundering money for her estranged lover, Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), who dealt heroin for a West African kingpin in the blockbuster Netflix hit, Orange Is the New Black. Orange Is the New Black, based on the true story and book by Piper Kerman, was created by Jenji Kohan and produced by Jodie Foster.
When we first meet upper-middle-class and ever so cultured Piper, she is preparing to leave her business, her best friend, and her adorable fiancé, Larry Bloom, played by Jason Biggs. It is hard to imagine how she will survive the chaos that awaits her – kind of like sending Chelsea Clinton off to contend with a Russian mafia cafeteria manager, who takes offense at one measly comment about her unpalatable food and decides to starve Piper until she is good and sorry for her faux pas. Meanwhile, cliques, gangs, lewd male prison officials and every other conceivable kind of terror abounds.
Unlike Oz, a series about men in prison, Orange Is the New Black focuses on the female experience. It is a riveting dramedy made all the more entertaining by the fact that it's real.
It also poses the question, who else is affected by our adverse experiences even when we feel entirely alone? Larry is an aspiring writer and one day he has a column published in The New York Times about his experience being engaged to an inmate. Neither Larry nor Piper can truly celebrate his good journalistic fortune because Larry feels guilty that Piper is still in prison and he is living a normal life where no one will suddenly attack him with a wrench or throw him into a moving dryer in the Laundromat, and Piper feels that Larry doesn't know her; he has written about the old Piper, the person she was before IT happened. Larry doesn't know the new Piper, who struggles in the estrogen jungle and she takes issue with the title of his column: "One Sentence, Two Prisoners." Is Larry really a prisoner, too? He thinks so.
Recently I watched Foreverland, a Canadian HBO show about William, a young guy with cystic fibrosis (Max Thieriot from Bates Motel), who spent nearly three hours every day doing physical therapy on his lungs just so he was able to breathe. He hooked up with a girl who encouraged him to go all the way to Mexico to scatter the ashes of one of their mutual friends who had just died of CF. Most people with cystic fibrosis don't live past 21. William made the long trek at great physical cost. At one point he argued with the girl, who was trying to connect with him. She said to him, "Do you think it's easier being the healthy one?" And he shouted an emphatic yes.
Yes, it is easier being the one who is not going to die of cystic fibrosis just as it is easier being the one who can visit the penal system and get in the newly-washed BMW after a stressful hour together and go home. But that's not to say that the people who love us and are involved with us are not deeply affected by our experiences, be that incarceration or terminal illness. They are profoundly influenced and they have the right to their own feelings – but they may not get much sympathy by telling them to the person who is actually imprisoned in a compound or by their body.
Orange Is the New Black is a radically different kind of TV series. First, it's only available on Netflix and not on TV or DVD. Second, it focuses on women, and third, it lets us know what most sane people already realize: the penal institute is failing us. Inmates are disproportionately people of color, they are not treated humanely or with respect (the new blacks), there is little protection from violence within the walls, and the concept of rehabilitation is a joke. These women are just doing their time and desperately counting the days until they get out. Will they have changed? Perhaps, but not necessarily for the better.
Thanks to the criminalization of marijuana, the reduction in rehab centers for addictions, which is where sick people belong, and the large number of illegal immigrants in the US, the country has one of the highest incarceration rates in the industrialized world. Not exactly something to be proud of. With 1 out of every 18 men and 1 in 89 women behind bars, according to CNN, Orange Is the New Black is educational and eye opening.
Sigrid Macdonald is a manuscript editor and the author of five books. You can find her at http://sigridmacdonald.blogspot.com/