Arts Desk

No Fisting Parties in the Chapel: An Ex-Con Reviews Orange Is the New Black, Part II

oitnb2My friend Susan K. is a prosperous Virginia business-owner who served four years and change in a Maryland state prison for drug-related robbery charges in her 20s. When I asked her if she'd watched Orange Is the New Black, she said, “Dude, why in the hell would I want to watch a show about the worst four years of my fucking life?”

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.”

Last Friday night, I sat down with her and watched the first four episodes of season 2. Here's our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

(Read Susan's full story in her review of episodes 1 and 2.)

Episode 3: “Hugs Can Be Deceiving”

Piper has been returned to her original prison, and with her are new inmates. Among them is Soso, who receives a suggestive gesture from Big Boo

WCP: Was there predatory sexual behavior in your prison?

Susan: Well, when the diesel chick [Big Boo] did the tongue-through-the-fingers thing, that brought back some memories. I had that gesture made at me a couple of times. But in terms of, like, rape the way it happens in the men’s prison, I don’t know if that really translates to women.

What would normally happen? Is “gay for the stay” realistic?

Yeah, it is. For a lot of women, that sort of thing isn't this enormous deal. And there are sort of protective arrangements that happen with women. But, this rampant thing going on in this show? That’s not realistic at all.

Explain.

On this show, it’s like you can’t go to the damn chow hall without tripping over the American Pie [Nicky] going down on somebody, or somebody’s having a fisting party in the freaking chapel. And also, on this show, the head guard has this whole “I hate lesbians” thing happening, but in our prison the guards didn’t give a shit one way or the other. They stopped women from having sex, but they also stopped women from getting Twinkies brought in by their relatives.  It was just their job to stop it. You aren’t supposed to have a great, exciting, healthy sex life in prison. That’s not what prison is for.

So what would be a realistic sexual experience in prison?

Do you want some time alone in the bathroom, dude?

Fuck off. It’s a legitimate question. There’s tons of sex on this show.

Seriously though, there’s a distinction that I think ought to be made, here. The women-in-prison scenario occupies this weird spot in the American sexual imagination, doesn’t it? I mean, you remember all those Cinemax movies about women in prison, with all these totally hot women getting it on for the cameras and all the guys watching, right? But those movies aren’t real, either in terms of prison, or in terms of actual lesbians. This show we’re watching now has realistic depictions of lesbian sex, which I’m sure gets lesbians pretty psyched, but what it doesn’t do is give a realistic version of lesbian sex in prison.

OK, so what’s the real version, then?

It’s like, maybe you make out for five seconds. Maybe there are fingers involved for two seconds. It happens really fast and there’s hardly anything to it, because, as this show seems to forget, there are freaking guards and cameras everywhere, and people get time added to their sentences for shit like that. It’s a risk/reward thing. Do I want sexual contact? Sure. Is getting maybe a half minute of it worth getting two months of good behavior time put back on my sentence if I’m caught? To some people it is and to some it isn’t. But this out in the open, no holds barred lesbian cruise thing on the show? Nah. Not happening.

Red is shaving her legs in the bathroom, and she discovers that Vee is showering in the next room.

Do you want to know what I saw only about four times during my entire sentence?

What?

Razors. Nobody, and I mean nobody, gave one good shit about shaving their legs, or armpits, or anything like that. I mean, what the hell for? Also, Star Trek here seems to have the entire bathroom to herself, and just all the time in the world to give her legs a quality shave.

Did you ever find yourself in the bathroom alone?

Hell no. We were assigned a time to shower, and we all went at once. When I got out [of prison], I used to live in the damn bathroom. After sharing it with so many people for so long, it was just the best thing in the world to have it to yourself.

The black girls are playing a game that involves guessing the identity of random celebrities. Crazy Eyes is the timekeeper.

Oh, this is giving me bad flashbacks.

What, the game?

No, just the loud. The yelling. Never speaking. Always yelling. I used to get really bad headaches every now and then, and there were these women in my unit who just yelled. All the time. If they were three feet away from each other they were yelling like they were three miles away from each other. And oh, the yelling when Jerry Springer was on! I mean, seriously, for about a year after I got out I would wake up in a cold sweat with that yelling in my head ... If I ever see Jerry fucking Springer in real life, I’m probably going to try to kick his ass.

Pennsatucky is showing off her new teeth to her followers. They begin to resent her.

So, I’m starting to feel like it’s a bad idea to show anything off in prison.

It’s a terrible idea, because the minute you do, you become a target. I mean, the hick [Pennsatucky] got new teeth and is lording it over her crew here, but you shouldn’t show off even the littlest things. Like, if you are a girl who has regular commissary, meaning someone on the outside puts money in your account, and somebody who has nothing sees you always walking around with boxes of Cheez-Its or something, you become a target. They always borrow from you, or hustle it from you, or they steal, or they try to just take it. It never ends.

Bennet, a prison guard, is in the library, having a clandestine conversation with Daya, the inmate who is carrying his child. They are in love.

You never had this sort of thing going on, right? You mentioned that there were no male guards.

Right, but there used to be male guards before my time there. And there stopped being male guards because this kind of shit would happen. I don’t mean things like Opie the prison guard [Bennet] falling in love with the Latina girl. That’s complete fiction. But female inmates used to get pregnant from male guards. And for the life of me, I cannot understand that, because female inmates are about the least fuckable women on earth.

What does that mean?

Guards watched us all the time. I mean all the time, either on the monitors or in person. They watched us walking down the hall with a box of tampons in one hand and a roll of toilet paper in the other. They saw us picking our noses. They would listen to us snore while we slept. If you stunk up the bathroom, everybody knew.  There was this one woman in on a dope charge called Poot Stinkum who farted constantly. And she would just fart like nobody was there all the damn time.

Did you say her name was Poot Stinkum?

Dude, I swear to God, everybody but the guards called her that.  I mean, every time she moved, she farted. She was like a squeak toy. But, honestly, we all were pretty gross. We all had some Poot sort of tendencies, because there were no men around and we just didn't give a shit. But apparently before my time the male guards used to get horny enough to lose their jobs over the Poot Stinkums of the world. And these guys were able to leave at the end of the day! Surely there were some non-Poots out there in the regular world for these guys. I just don’t get the urge to bang an inmate at all.

Nicky is writing about her sexual conquests in a notebook when she hears Morello crying in her bunk. She walks over and comforts her.

Ok, I’m going to say that American Pie [Nicky] is the least realistic of all the characters on this show.

Why’s that?

Everything about her: her hair, her mannerisms, everything, they just do not exist in prison. In the first place, her hair would make her a target almost immediately. Secondly, her little sassy-pie routine might make for quality television, but somebody would have ripped that hair off her scalp if she talked to anyone the way she does on this show. Prison Darwinism takes care of big, bouncy hair and being a smart-ass really fast. But here she just bops around, doing what she wants, just shitting on everybody. She would have been pummeled in real life, and she would have cut her hair and shut her mouth shortly after that. Oh, and also, let’s take notice of the fact that she’s openly cuddling on the cot with the Jersey Chick [Morello], and there’s Officer Chinless [Officer Fischer] being all sympathetic and letting it happen. Because all of a sudden that seems to be completely OK in this prison. Again, what is with all the damn open snuggling? Is this prison or the freshman dorm?

So you weren't a smart-ass in prison?

Dude, if you ever saw me in the prison element, you would have thought I was brain damaged. Seriously. How I am now is not how I was in prison. And I don’t mean that in an “it was a long time ago, I've turned my life around” way. I mean that I kept my mouth zipped in prison. I would sometimes go for days and only say maybe five words to people. I kept my mouth shut, and if I thought someone was an idiot or annoying, which happened all the time, I kept it to myself. I wanted to get the hell out of there, and talking shit to people was a definite way to make my stay longer.

***

Episode 4: “A Whole Other Hole”

Morello is tasked with driving a cancer-stricken inmate to the hospital for chemotherapy treatment. She is told by Officer Fischer to take the van to the parking garage and wait for three hours.

Come on. Seriously? Is the Jersey Chick a prisoner or an employee? How the hell is that allowed to happen? I mean, she shouldn't even be allowed to have those sunglasses, much less be allowed to just chill in a parking garage by herself. For three hours! In a van! With the keys! Why don’t they just put her up in a Courtyard by Marriott?

Yeah, I’m having a hard time grasping this.

Well, I’ll tell you what, if Star Trek is all bummed about not being able to smuggle shit into the prison any more, why doesn't she just have a word with the chick who’s allowed to drive the van and is left unsupervised for hours at a time? I mean, if she can do all that then she can surely just roll on over to CVS. Hell, roll on over to Bed, Bath, and Beyond! She’d be like Donald Trump in that prison.

This lack of security thing is getting a bit hard to believe.

In the past two episodes, I've decided that Officer Chinless should either be fired, or at the very least be sent to the wing where the inmates smear shit on the walls. Let me count the ways in which she sucks at her job. First, she asks Jersey Chick if she’s OK when she’s crying on the phone. Guards do not ask you if you’re OK. They don’t really give a shit. Next, she just sits there and sort of nods approvingly while American Pie and Jersey Chick get all up close and personal. Then she makes it clear that she won’t be checking on Jersey Chick for at least three hours. Then she says that she hates putting the cuffs on the cancer lady. Then she goes and gets cancer lady a soda. I mean, every convict in this place must know what a mark she is by now. Can you imagine if she were guarding Guantanamo Bay?

(Big Boo discovers Nicky’s journal, which details her sexual conquests. They decide to have a contest to see which of the two can have sex with the most inmates.)

OK, in the real world, this contest would be an impossibility, right?

It would also probably get somebody beat up. I mean, these two are all good natured about it, like it’s a Shakespeare comedy or something. “Let us sally forth and set a contest! In which two shall seduce maidens, yet only one shall triumph! Tally ho!” But there’s jealousy and protective relationships and even kind of a sense of ownership for a lot of women in prison. But hey, whatever. This is TV. So just go ahead and scissor away in the chapel. And be sure to be real loud about it, and don’t worry about getting caught, because apparently all of the three or four guards on duty in this prison just fuck off to the break room whenever American Pie gets horny.

(Red discovers a dilapidated greenhouse on the grounds of the prison. She goes inside and discovers a drain pipe. She then asks one of the officials if she can start gardening.)

So Star Trek just discovers this greenhouse after being in prison for, what, 15 years? And its wide open, with lots of rusty old tools laying around? Where the hell is this prison? Who’s running the damn show in this place? And also, are we supposed to believe that she can just bop on into the dude’s office without knocking and shoot the breeze with a prison official?

How does contraband actually get into prisons?

The guards, dude. Totally. I would estimate that around maybe 40 percent of the guards were bringing shit into the prison.

How does that happen?

OK, well, on this show the guards are, you know, war heroes, like the white guy that’s banging the Latina. But in real life the guards and the prisoners are usually peers. I mean, honestly there isn’t much daylight between the guards and the prisoners as far as background goes. A lot of them come from the same neighborhood. They mostly just have high school diplomas, and the pay is shit, so a relative of a prisoner will just come by their house and give them money to bring in pretty much anything. I mean, I was able to stay clean in prison, but if I had put some effort into it, I could have probably gotten my hands on some dope. Some prisoners maintain addictions in there, you know? It’s really hard, and you have to have outside help, but you can do it.

Did you ever personally bribe a guard?

No. I just flat out wasn’t willing to take the chance. I really wasn’t. I had five years. And I was so damn lucky to only get five years. Dude, I was so fucking stupid.  I could have killed somebody ... What would have happened if the gun went off when I was pissing myself in that dry cleaners? You run into a lot of women in prison who feel like they don’t  deserve to be there, and some of them were right and some of them were full of shit, but I knew I deserved to be in there. I mean, it was hard, definitely.  I remember my first year there, I would watch the second hand on the clock, and it was like “Tick. Tick. Tick.” But after a while, those days that get shaved off for good behavior start adding up. And you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. So, why fuck that up by bribing a guard for a pack of Marlboro Lights? Towards the end, I got a work release job at a restaurant. Every morning I would leap out of bed, and a guard would take me to this chain restaurant, and I would wait tables and work doubles and bust my ass. I was the best damn waitress that place ever had. And at the end of my shift the guard would pick me up and I would turn in all my tip money and they would put it in my account. That was heaven, you know? Because I would get to spend the entire day away from the prison, and I’d come back at night, and I would get up every day and do it all over again. And every now and then a customer would complain about the food or I would get a shitty tip and that meant nothing to me. Nothing. I was like, really, in the grand scheme of things, what’s the worst that you can do to me? I’m going back to prison tonight. It’s amazing once you get out how you can let trivial shit just slide off your back.

Read Susan's take on episodes 1 and 2episode 5episode 6episode 7, and episode 8.

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  • E. Masquinongy

    Damn, this is good. Congratulations.

  • Pingback: An Ex-Con Reviews "Orange Is The New Black" - Arts Desk

  • Peter

    Great piece. Thank you both.

  • D.Palmer

    Susan K. you are hilarious. I would definitely buy a book about your experiences in prison.
    That was such a great article!

  • Fun-n-games

    So, the media is not the message?

    Imagine that.

  • MarieE

    I concur on all counts about incarceration having served some time from a
    white, educated, middle class, irish catholic girl. Having only seen season one, I was
    sooooo disappointed. Your right, where the hell are they? Prison! Very good writing
    THANK-YOU

  • nothanks

    I'm not sure why it's supposed to be such a revelation that television is not always true to life. I can understand why a soldier might hate seeing his experiences romanticized for entertainment but I have very little sympathy for an ex-convict's story being butchered.

  • Kim

    This is really funny. And fascinating. And I'd love to see more of these stories. (Though I don't think it undermines the credibility of the show, which [a] takes place in a minimum-security federal prison so it's not even remotely the same and [b] has never once claimed to be gritty realism, but is excellent entertainment.)

  • Dawn

    This was a great article. My partner did some time and has said many of the same things while watching OITNB. The mention of the fine line between guards and inmates rings true. She had been an MP prior to her addiction. Many of the same traits serve well in both positions. We will continue happily watching the show as the fictional entertainment it was meant to be.

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  • Jeff

    Please keep reviewing the episodes. I enjoy the show but I really love the criticism because despite enjoying the show I can also see how f**ed up it is. The criticism is well places because many people do in fact see the show as highly realistic. But it is a lot of racist, overly romantic crap... entertaining though it may be.

  • http://www.districtdiva.com District Diva

    I have enjoyed Susan's recaps, mostly, but I find her opinion of guards sleeping with inmates to be appalling. There is a reason it is classified as RAPE for a guard to have sex with an inmate: the inmates are totally powerless, with virtually no rights and no credibility. How can they say no? They absolutely cannot consent to sex, hence the statutory rape classification. So, it's just weird that she questions why the guards would want to rape the inmates who are so disgusting. Um...the guards are rapists. And "disgusting" people get raped all the time by rapists.

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  • B

    I'm sorry, but I don't understand how everyone is buying this. A writer tells you he has this friends Susan, and she WAS a heroin addict/robber, but she went to prison, and now she's "shaped up" because she has OWNS a business, and is married. First of all, I don't see why being married is a marker of having bettered yourself. Plenty of shitty people are married. Second of all, she OWNS A BUSINESS - and yet this is how she talks? I'm assuming this is some shitty ass business, because the way this woman "talks" sounds like she's a rude, "I don't give a fuck" type, who knows the author is writing this for work, and yet thinks she should talk like the characters on the show? I like commentary that pokes holes in media portrayals, because that will always exist, and it's an interesting topic, but I honestly think either "Susan" is a character the author created, maybe with a little research into women's prisons, or, if she is real, she's not as upstanding as he'd like us to think.

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  • http://www.handyortungen-KostenLos.de Handyortung

    I am really not surprised, I imagined that that's not what really happens in a prison, but maybe a lot of people do...
    It's a really good article, congrats.

  • boxanne

    fucking brilliant. I watch the show to keep me company doing my morning elliptical. but I'm about fed up. my brother has been in prison for thirty years, same stretch, and just being a visitor is making me gnash my teeth in frustration. I can't believe ol piperdiaper hasn't had a couple busts to the chops over the stupid shit she says. episode one: you can't just take me blah blah blah SHUT UP!!! thanks, Susan K!

  • Gabi

    Um, does the writer not realize that the prison in the show is based off of FCI Danbury which is one of the nicer, "country club" prisons that house criminals of all sorts, but many who have done white collar crime? Saying that the show is unrealistic based on her sole experience in the Maryland DOC is inaccurate; she has no idea how shit is run in the federal system, most notably that of Danbury, where Piper Kerman, whose memoir the show is based on, was incarcerated. And for what it's worth, Susan K. seems to think she's some expert on life inside despite having served only FOUR YEARS in ONE prison. Bitch please.

  • Sara

    Isn't the stalker driving the van unsupervised for hours at a time similar to the work program you did waitressing? I don't see that much of a difference there.

  • Christine

    Interviewee is garbage. Also questioning the interviewer at this point for thinking this would be a worthy person to interview. The interviewee is either fake or a complete ass, thinking that their junkie ass is any kind of authority.

  • with

    Agreed, this series is garbage. Reads completely false.

  • Jult

    Well, I understood all your points but I still adore this serie. Specially because is fiction and has an strong building of fictional characters. What I´m trying to say is that at the end prison is the less problem in their lives, actually you can see it as a little home (something that is not true in real life). The people´s personalities, dreams, adventures and personal problems are the gold of this serie in consequently I don´t care about how are prison in united states. You can´t forget that this is comedy no a drama. If you want drama real facts are necessary but this is not the case. this is not even a documentary and I think that is obvious that your real and personal experience is having problems with the way they built the history.

  • Anna

    Thank you! I was just gonna say the same thing. How is it that Susan K. can spend a WHOLE day without guard supervision, make ACTUAL money while doing it, and have easy access to contraband, somehow have a hard time believing Morello working as a transporter for pennies an hour and sitting in a van, not wanting to risk bringing in goods? The reason nobody dares to take advantage of these freedoms is for the same reason Susan K. claimed she didn't: Bc nobody wants a longer sentence. Did you hear about the facility where the guards forgot to lock a cell and rather than those prisoners escaping, they baked a cake and watched tv? Yea this is a case of risk vs reward. It's risk escaping for what may be a longer sentence or go for a guaranteed reward though it may be temporary. Morello knew she had it good and wasn't gonna mess with her luck. Even when she finally does try taking advantage, she freaks out the whole time. She realizes her mistake & commits to her duties much more gratefully after that. It creates the awareness that there are still major consequences & that their small freedom is something they shouldn't take lightly.

  • Sniglet66

    I am loving both the show and these reviews. Being aware enough to know that TV is NOT a source of reality, but a source of entertainment, makes that possible. And smart enough to know that the ex-con input here is just one data point, and is to be taken as such. Love the humor in the show and in these posts. Thanks for taking the trouble, its a good read.

    For accuracy and reality, I'll watch or read a well-researched, non-fiction source.

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