Arts Desk

“Where the Fuck Are All the Guards?!” An Ex-Con Reviews Orange Is the New Black

PiperMy friend, Susan K., began using heroin at the age of 19. Within three years, she was physically dependent on the drug, with several failed attempts at getting clean under her belt. She was 25 years old when she took part in three armed robberies for drug money over the course of three days.

Her then-boyfriend and accomplice in the robberies was arrested while he was casing a bank and, under police questioning, gave up Susan's identity and location. She was arrested in the periodicals section of a Barnes & Noble with a stolen gun in her purse and hair that was still wet from a cheap and hurried drugstore dye job. The court sentenced Susan to five years in Jessup, Md.'s state prison, where she earned outside work privileges and got an early release after serving slightly more than four years.

In the decade since her release, she has completely turned her life around—she's clean, owns a prosperous business in Virginia, and has been happily married for four years.

About a year ago, I called her and asked if she had seen Orange Is the New Black, the hit Netflix show set in a federal women’s prison.

“Dude, why in the hell would I want to watch a show about the worst four years of my fucking life?” she said.

A few weeks later, she told me that she had watched a few episodes, mainly because she was "tired of reading about some Wellesley graduate on the Internet talking about how goddamned real that show is. As if she would know.”

On Friday night, I sat down with her and watched the first four episodes of season 2. Here's our conversation on episodes 1 and 2 (her review of episodes 3 and 4 is here), edited for length and clarity.

Episode 1: “Thirsty Bird”

Piper Chapman, the series protagonist, is lying on her bed in solitary confinement when a guard enters and tells her to get dressed. Piper has smeared eggs on the wall as sort of an art project.

Susan: The one thing that drives me nuts about this show is all the snappy banter. I understand that they have to make the show interesting, but if a guard came in and saw that you had smeared food on the wall, they would have thrown a bucket and scrubber in and not fed you again until you cleaned that shit up. They certainly wouldn’t have allowed you to talk about the food on the wall, or wait for you to give this quirky explanation. This is like a scene from Blossom or something, where the guard is playing the exasperated Dad character. It’s like, “Oh, Piper! What wacky antics have you gotten into now?”

WCP: Were you ever put into solitary confinement?

Well, I got put into something like it in the county jail when I first got arrested and was totally dope-sick. I told them I was suicidal, which honestly wasn’t far from the truth.  They loaded me up on Prozac and put me in this room with a big, metal cot that didn’t have any legs. All I had to wear was this paper hospital johnny. It was fucking FREEZING. I told them I miraculously felt better after three days of that.

What would prisoners have to do to get sent to solitary confinement?

Contraband was one thing. Fighting, of course. But some people wanted to get sent to solitary because they felt threatened or unsafe. There was this one woman who starved one of her children to death, and that was all over the news, and everybody was just fucking terrible to her. She didn’t feel safe in general population, so she requested solitary, and they gave it to her. Some people also pretended to be crazy so they could get sent to the crazy wing, which was apparently easier. There was this one woman who threw her own shit at the guards and just ranted and raved, but that sort of thing is really difficult to keep up. Go ahead and try acting crazy for an extended period of time. Not like Klinger on M*A*S*H, where he wore a dress, but like real, honest to God batshit. You can’t keep that up forever, you know?

Piper is in the exercise yard of a holding facility in Chicago. A fight breaks out and Piper watches a woman she became friendly with get beaten up.

Did you ever get into any fights?

I got into a few screaming matches at first, but that was because you pretty much have to. It’s not nearly as violent as men’s prison, but criminals are criminals, you know? They always look for weaknesses to exploit. Always. So you have to roll the dice and make it clear to whoever is testing you that it won’t be easy. I mean, I was skinny and blonde, too, but I had six years of heroin addiction to sort of season me up. I looked pretty fucked up. And after a while, word got around that I had committed armed robbery, and that helped.

How did that help you?

Armed robbery is different than being involved in the drug trade, which is what most of these women were in for. The word got around that I had robbed a bank, which wasn’t really true. And never mind that I was trembling and scared shitless when I did hold up that dry-cleaner. I literally pissed myself when I did it, but the image in their mind was that I was, you know, rappelling down the side of a building like in the movies or something. Another thing that helped was the whole Wicca thing. I’ve been practicing it since I was 15. So, I asked for permission to use the chapel for it, and none of those women knew what the hell that was, and word got around that I was a witch.

Seriously? A witch?

I’m not joking. You would not believe how many of them thought that I was going to put some sort of voodoo curse on them. It’s not like I cultivated the idea that I was a bank robbing witch, but letting them think that definitely got me some breathing room.

Piper gives her panties to a dangerous-looking male inmate, who's serving the women food in the cafeteria, as payment to get a message to Alex, her ex-girlfriend and co-drug smuggler.

OK, I’m going to call bullshit on this entire scene. Find me the prison where they send the rapist who just got processed to deliver the food to the women. Please. They have to at least pretend to give a shit about your safety, you know? Also, are all the guards asleep here? She just gives the dude her damn panties and a note to another inmate in the middle of everything. No attempt at hiding anything.

I think they're saying he’s actually a hitman and not a rapist.

Are you fucking brain-damaged, dude? Do you think that makes this more believable?

Right. Sorry.

Another thing that’s removed from real life is all these male guards just dicking around. Not just in this particular prison, but in the whole series. The only time we saw male guards was when they came storming in wearing riot gear when they wanted to toss all the cells.

Why were they wearing riot gear?

Well, the point was to shock everybody and not give anyone time to flush or eat anything. So you’d be in the day room playing cards or something and then the door would fly open and these guys would rush in and herd everybody up against the wall. Total intimidation. It worked, though. Nobody ever did a damn thing except stand up against the wall.

Alex convinces Piper to lie on the witness stand. Alex then tells the truth when it's her turn to testify. She is then apparently freed.

I’ll totally believe that.

Why?

Oh, people turn on each other constantly. All the time. And not even for getting released, you know? They do it for getting their sentence reduced by a few months. Anyone who tells you there’s this honor code, or thinks that their homeboys won’t rat them out is in for a rude awakening. But I’ll tell you the most believable thing about this whole series is the idea that Piper only got 15 months for running dope money.

Why is that believable?

Because she’s white, rich, and blonde.

Does that make a difference?

I’m a white blonde girl who went out and willfully fucked up and committed armed robbery, and I got five years. There were tons of black girls in my prison who were holding onto a bag of dope for a couple of days, and they always seemed to get, like, 10 years. If you ever find yourself in prison and wonder why there’s tension between white and black, shit like that is probably one of the reasons.

That’s incredibly unfair.

It absolutely is. But that didn’t prevent me from moonwalking the fuck out of that place when the time came.

 * * *

Episode 2: “Looks Blue, Tastes Red”

The prison is holding a job fair. A woman is helping a few inmates try on various articles of clothing in order to teach them how to dress appropriately for a job interview.

Did they ever have anything like this at your prison? Any sort of programs to help you transition to the outside world?

Are you kidding? When I was in there they quit offering college courses because of the expense. Hell, they weren’t even offering GED exams, so the idea of Ms. Dress for Success here coming in and running a seminar makes no sense at all.

The Latina contingent is hard at work in the kitchen, prepping the meals for the prisoners. The prison guard responsible for maintenance is working on a broken radiator. 

OK, hit pause for a second.  

The scene is paused.

Susan: Ok, this is like one of those photo games that they have at the bar, except instead of showing you what’s different, I’m going to show you what’s total bullshit. Have you noticed that on this show, whenever anybody is eating, its hot dogs, and Steak-Umms, and chicken nuggets, and fruit cocktail, and tater tots, and baby carrots? Like, high school cafeteria shit?

Right.

Ok. And, your high school only had two or three cafeteria ladies at work?

Right.

So, could you please explain to me why this kitchen has a dozen chicks back there? Or why there’s so much cooking gear that they don’t need? Christ, it looks like the kitchen of a high-end steakhouse! Hey, look, a big assed dough mixer! For all the fresh bread that they totally make in prison all the time! And look, there’s a professional deli slicer, which they need for all the bologna and cheese sandwiches on white bread! And look! A fryer! And enormous ovens and stoves with 40 burners for all the intricate sauces that get served to the happy, well-fed prisoners!

So this kitchen is unrealistic?

This kitchen is fucking Fantasy Island! There are a lot of things that drive me crazy about the show, but the kitchen is killing me. In the first season there always seemed to be these wooden crates loaded with fresh vegetables, like Whole Foods was catering everybody’s lockdown experience, and Star Trek [Red] was running around with a clipboard, barking orders at everybody.

Weren’t prisoners put to work in the kitchen?

Sure, but the idea that one chick would be this kitchen overlord is ridiculous. The guards would never allow one prisoner to have that much authority. And “working in the kitchen” means “Open that can. Put it in the pot. Turn on the heat. Go mop the floor. Come back. Stir. Go mop again. Go over there. Put that tray of fish sticks in. Press the button. Repeat.” And guards were back there supervising the whole thing.

So no deep fat fryers, dough mixers, or deli meat cutters?

What, so some crackhead chick with a grudge can throw hot oil on somebody? Or push somebody’s hand into the meat slicer? Or use the dough mixer to fuck their hands up so they can get sent to the infirmary for some Vicodin? Hell no. I’d also like to point out that the handyman working on the radiator with no guard protection whatsoever has all sorts of screwdrivers and wrenches just hanging on his tool belt. They might as well have just stabbed him before he went to work and saved him the commute.

The white girls, followers of Pennsatucky, are at work in the laundry, folding clothes.

They got that particular stereotype nailed. The methed-out hillbilly. God, those girls used to just set my teeth on edge. They were this pack of barefoot morons, straight from the fucking holler, you know? And they were all super religious, except they apparently had this new chapter in the Bible that told them to hate black people. And Latinas. And oh my God, they hated the white girls who acted black. ... And they hated me because of the Wiccan thing. They totally believed in the “Susan is a witch” mythology... And again, here are convicts all gathered around all sorts of machinery and chemicals down in the laundry, and not a damned guard in sight.

It does seem like there are never any guards anywhere.

There’s a putt-putt golf course near my house with more security than this prison.

In a flashback sequence, we are shown how Taystee was roped in to the drug trade through the manipulations of Vee.

Again, I get the need for drama and stories, but if the lady who runs this show wanted to be realistic, most of these flashbacks would be about 8 seconds long.

What do you mean?

I mean that a lot of the girls I knew in prison were in there for really uncomplicated and undramatic reasons. Like, an accurate flashback scene would be a black girl sitting on the couch watching TV, and her boyfriend...says “Hey, baby, do you mind if I leave this shit here for my cousin to pick up?” And she says “OK,” without even looking up from QVC. And then, boom, cut to her serving 10 years.

How did you find out about how all these women ended up in prison? I think one of the premises of the show is that nobody asks what they did.

That’s actually pretty accurate. Nobody openly talked about that. But I spent about two years of my sentence doing this support group. I was assigned to it because of the heroin thing, so we would all sit around and talk about our experiences, and what we did to end up there and all that. I learned a hell of a lot, man. I mean a hell of a lot.

What was your job in prison?

I worked in the library. 97 cents a day. The closest I came to getting my ass seriously kicked was when I tried to stop this one hillbilly chick from ripping pictures out of a magazine. She just really wanted those pictures. Fortunately a guard was there so nothing really got started.

The Job Fair final is taking place on stage, with the two finalists competing in a mock job interview. The black girls and the Latinas are offering loud and enthusiastic support for their respective candidates.

I was in prison for four years, and I can’t ever remember one group of people really cheering somebody on.

You mean there wasn’t really a “go team!” kind of thing going on?

No. It was always really adversarial, even among crews of people. And, like, the worst thing you could possibly do was to be good at something in front of everybody. That was the same thing as saying that you were better than everybody else, and nobody tolerated that shit for very long. Whether it was real or imagined, you couldn’t make people think you were above them. So you just sort of stayed shitty at everything. Like, nobody was painting, or writing, or drawing, or anything creative. I mean, people would sing, but everybody sucked at that, so that was ok.

So, no cheering?

Its prison, dude. There’s nothing to cheer about.

Read Susan's thoughts on episodes 3 and 4episode 5, episode 6, episode 7, and episode 8.

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  • Someone

    Just wanted to pipe in in agreement. The author's friend did STATE time in a MAXIMUM facility; OITNB is set in a FED MINIMUM facility. Very big difference. This is a humorous article, but ultimately a flawed critique in some places.

    I did three years in prison myself, and that is one reason why I love this show, it can usually be very accurate. Not ALWAYS... Off the top of my head, DOC or County administration would usually not let two individuals from the same case to be in the same block. Piper and Alex would probably never have seen eachother, especially not when they were on a writ in Chicago. Putting two witnesses in the same holding tank together so they could get their stories straight before walking into court? Would never happen. Also this article is correct about the trustee whom passed the note to Alex: a CO would have been watching the trustee carefully, especially if it's a male in a female unit (if that would even happen in the first place, of which I am doubtful).

    But some of the things the friend of the author claims is inaccurate, is actually accurate...

    - Where are all the COs? Well, you only have a handful in a minimum facility. In my last year of my three, I was in a minimum facility, which was a dorm essentially with no fences, although we all wore ankle bracelets so the COs could track us at all times. For every shift, there was probably four COs tops that governed about 120 inmates.

    Furthermore, the depiction of the COs on this show is VERY accurate. Literally every one of the CO characters on the show I could identify with a CO I'd met.

    -Kitchen gear? Yes they have dough-mixers, I actually worked in a bakery for my first months in prison. I had to learn how to use one! I will say that inmates would not handle actual intake of food so that seems suspicious. But otherwise OITNB has very accurate sets.

  • caroline

    MOST women haven't been to prison, so it doesn't matter. This review is very unimportant to mainstream America.

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  • Kate

    This was extremely entertaining, partly because I could totally hear it in Natasha Lyonne's voice while I was reading. Your friend seems like a real character.

  • Erin

    "Off the top of my head, DOC or County administration would usually not let two individuals from the same case to be in the same block. Piper and Alex would probably never have seen eachother, especially not when they were on a writ in Chicago. Putting two witnesses in the same holding tank together so they could get their stories straight before walking into court? Would never happen."

    I agree that this seemed unrealistic, however this is very loosely based on the true story. Piper Kerman and her ex-girlfriend Catherine Cleary Wolters were in prison together in Chicago for about five weeks during the drug trial. Apparently they were even seated next to each other during the flight there. Both women have said that they were able to find some closure after this reunion. All the reignited sexual tension and relationship drama is fictionalized for the show, obviously. They had both moved on long ago and Piper was happily engaged to Larry Smith.

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  • Kaleb

    Susan K.'s account of her own prison stay is interesting, and worth writing about, but her analysis of OITNB is completely off-base. She says she went to Jessup and Patuxent in Maryland--both of which are maximum-security prisons. Jessup was closed seven years ago because it was particularly brutal.

    OITNB's prison is low security, just like the prison the original book's writer went to in real life. The "fake" aspects you see on the show are real in many prisons, and in fact many prisons are much more relaxed in their security. Martha Stewart wouldn't end up at the same prison as the woman who starved her own children.

  • Christine

    Would be more interesting if the interviewee wasn't some pretentious, unlikable junkie.

  • Alan

    sorry folks but this show is a ridiculous parody and full of cliches. it is also so full of leftist propaganda as to be completely inane. and before you lay a label on me. I find the far right just as much a bunch of looney's as the socialist progressive left. well almost as much anyway. if you are a progressive socialist liberal. you will love this show. any body else might find some entertainment here. but not much I think. a stupid show is still a stupid show even if a lot of people follow it. THE JERSEY SHORE IS PROOF POSITIVE OF THIS....and all those other reality shows they keep foisting on us. foisting I think I spelled that right. I am constantly dumbfounded and amazed at what people find entertaining today. especially the comedy of today. It seems like it's nothing more than fart jokes and potty humor. like stuff I remember from grade school.
    give ma a john candy, a bill murrey, a richard pryor. over a will ferrell any day of the week. hell give me the 3 stooges and abbott and costello over most of anything today.

  • Greg

    This was a fantastic read. I've never been to prison, myself. But I'm not stupid enough to believe that these TV shows are even close to being realistic. This article was more entertaining than any prison show.

    I also want to congratulate you on your successful getting out of prison, and getting over your drug addiction. I'm glad to hear you're doing well for yourself.

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  • Olsens11

    Thanks for adding absolutely nothing.

  • klepp0906

    What an ignorant reply. Especially the pro other species part. No they got more time because their record probably shows violence and general disregard for life and civilization in general. Sentencing guidelines exist for this reason and I assure you their sentences were just and in line. (Relative to the book. I don't agree with the delusional war on drugs and addicts getting 10 years while rapists get 3).

    Anyways, apart from the way you conduct yourself after "turning your life around" you still seem as naive as ever.

  • Sandra Bollocks

    They definitely didn't load her up on Prozac in a county jail. Legally, at least.

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