Arts Desk

Dildo-Making and Smuggling Cigarettes: An Ex-Con Reviews Orange Is The New Black, Part V

oitnb ep7My 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 night, we watched the seventh episode of Season 2. Here's our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Episode 7: “Comic Sans”

The black girls are sitting in a supply closet, rolling cigarettes.

WCP: For most of your time in Jessup and Patuxent, smoking was allowed. But once they made it illegal, were contraband cigarettes easy to come by?

Susan K: Well, actually, I got experienced in the whole bootleg cigarette thing right off the bat. When I first got arrested and was in jail, waiting for my trial and all that horrible shit, cigarettes were illegal in the jail. But there were corrupt guards at the jail too, so cigarettes were a popular sideline for those evil motherfuckers.

Would they sneak in packs or cartons?

Oh, neither. Why risk that? They would go to Rite Aid and buy, like, not even the Drum brand rolling tobacco, but those tubs of that shitty Top tobacco, you know? And they would just roll three or four at a time and bring those in via the cracks of their asses, and they could sell those for 10 bucks apiece.

Ten bucks? Seriously?

Basic economics, dude. Demand is about as high as you can get, supply is scarce. So what would happen is you would get some people to go in on one cigarette. Like three or four of us would pool some stamps together until we got 10 bucks worth and we would buy one cigarette, and then break that into four pieces.

Taystee is selling a cigarette to Nicky in the shower stall.

How did you get the smell past the guards at the jail?

Well, partially the guards didn’t want to be bothered, and also they didn’t want to fuck up the most profitable thing they had, so they mostly let it slide. I mean, there were limits. Like, you had to at least try to be clandestine, you know? You couldn’t just light up in line at the chow hall. Want to learn how to smoke a nasty-ass cigarette in jail, dude?

OK.

OK. Well, in the jail it was more dorm-style living, so we were able to team up. We did a rotating thing where three of us would make a sort of tent underneath a sheet, while the fourth girl was walking around in a circle outside the sheet.

What was she doing?

She had a commissary bottle of baby powder, and she’d be squeezing it so puffs of baby powder would float up in the air and block the smell. So three girls would be in there passing it around, just hotboxing the shit out of that thing, and then one girl would get out and take over on baby powder duty so the other girl could get her turn.

Did that really work?

Nope. It just smelled like smoke and baby powder. But I think the guards respected the effort, so they just let us do it every so often. Anyway, once I got to Jessup it was ok to smoke there, so you didn’t have to resort to that stuff anymore, until near the end of my sentence when they made it illegal, so the guards immediately got into the cigarette-peddling business, and then all of a sudden there was a run on baby powder at the commissary. Like, it was easier to get cigarettes than baby powder, and baby powder was legal, you know?

In the greenhouse, Sophia enters and is given contraband beauty items by Red.

Man, those chicks are left alone out there so much that they could probably just start growing weed, no problem.

Was there a market for the sort of things that Red is selling? You know, candy, mud masks, things like that?

I hate to nitpick, because I know this show is supposed to be entertainment, but they had candy at the commissary. They also had shampoo and stuff like that, and yeah, it was Suave, but it did the job. So the idea that Star Trek would have this brisk black market mud mask treatment thing going on doesn’t really hold water. Most women stopped giving a shit about their skincare routine, you know? In terms of what was brought in to the prison, it was drugs. A little bit of weed. Tons of pills, because they were easy to sneak in, and considering that everybody was already pilled the fuck out on Prozac or Wellbutrin it was easy to camouflage that stuff. And towards the end of my sentence it started to be cigarettes. If a guard was going to risk sneaking something in, it was going to be something that people would definitely buy, and mud masks don't really fall under that category.

I remember reading somewhere that inmates are some of the most inventive people on earth. Did you learn any MacGyver sort of skills in there?

Oh, of course. If you give me an old-school cassette Walkman, a rubber band, a lighter, and a ballpoint pen I can make a tattoo gun with my eyes closed.

Really?

Totally, dude. Here, check this shit out….

Susan shows me a tattoo on her arm.

That’s impressive for a prison tattoo.

Hell yeah. But really, the most commonly made item when I was in was your run-of-the-mill dildo. Women would become freaking engineers over that kind of thing. I mean, some of those things had, like, arches that could support a bridge, you know? And I heard over at the men’s prison they used to get really clever about Fifis.

What are Fifis?

Dude, it’s pretty gross.

You brought it up.

Well, a Fifi is like this pocket sort of thing, and some prisoners will hoard lunch meat and load it up, and then just…you know...

Susan makes a wanking motion.

Yikes. Right. OK.

Yeah, from what I heard that was a pretty profitable sideline if you worked in the kitchen at the men’s prison. Stealing a couple slices of lunch meat Fifi material that you could barter for something else.

That’s how to profit in prison?

Become a Fifi material kingpin, dude. The world’s your oyster.

Sister Ingalls is in the cafeteria, having a conversation with Rosa, who has cancer.

Were there ever really ill women when you were in prison?

There were a few women who were HIV positive that I know of. One was completely open about it, and they treated her like a leper. For awhile I thought it was a strategy she had to get left alone, but one time I saw all the pills she took in the clinic, so I think she was legit.

Why was everybody mean to her?

Well, bear in mind, this was before we managed to get sort of a handle on HIV. Plus, it wasn’t like these chicks were up on the latest literature regarding the virus. Some of them probably still thought a toilet-seat transmission was a possibility. But also, I think there was a bit of “There but for the grace of God go I” thing going on. You have to remember, there are tons of hookers and junkies and sometimes hooker/junkies, you know? And it wasn’t always a guarantee that there were clean needles around. I would love to tell you that I was this super responsible junkie who always swabbed with alcohol and always had fresh syringes, and a lot of times I did, but there were a few times where I didn’t, you know? Like, you managed to score some money. Do you use some of that money to get new needles? Or do you take a chance on that old one so you can get more heroin? When it gets to the point where your addiction is really humming along, and you’ve experienced withdrawal more than a few times, you start to take chances to avoid being dope sick.

Was anyone going through chemotherapy or anything like that?

Not that I saw. There were a few women who came in pregnant. That was always fucked up.

Why?

Well, they go into labor and get wheeled away, and then a few days later they come back without the baby and they are just, like, inconsolable, you know? They had that baby and that baby was just taken away from them instantly.

(Nicky is in the library, buying a cigarette from Poussey. Nicky is on one end of a bookshelf and Poussey is on the other. They are conversing between a gap in the books. )

So you worked in the library. Does this library seem realistic?

Well, it doesn’t look like my prison library. Actually, the prison library looked like an elementary school library, mainly because the bookshelves were only about two or three feet high, and they were all only one sided. Like the backs were all up against the walls.

Why was that?

Because they didn’t want the sort of shit that’s happening [on the show] to happen in real life. These two are making deals and gossiping and getting into shady, extracurricular shit, and they’re using tall-ass bookshelves to hide behind. Prison almost always felt like you were walking across a frozen lake. There was never anything to hide behind.  Somebody could always see most or all of you almost all the time.

What sorts of books were popular with the inmates?

Lots of Danielle Steele, lots of Harlequin Romance novels. There was also this biography of Whitney Houston that had, like, a three-month waiting list. Women would get snippy over that one for some reason. That was the stuff they were allowed to check out, anyway. When they were in the library they were mostly in the law section.

Really?

Yeah. They were all looking up appeals and things like that. Looking for Wonka’s golden ticket out of that shithole. And it seems naïve, but then again, I understand why a lot of them were doing it.

Why do you think they were hitting the law books?

Well, a lot of them got pretty shitty legal representation. Like, here’s this public defender with 300 other clients, and for a lot of the inmates going through the court system probably felt like being on a subway. It’s like, busted, next stop, court-appointed attorney who constantly mispronounces your name, next stop, that same court-appointed encourages you to plead guilty, and you might have been guilty but maybe not, next stop, prosecutor gets a lay-up conviction and the judge gets to go home early, next stop, you get three years. I mean, I never bothered to look at the legal books because I know I got a ridiculously light sentence, so why bitch about that? But if I were one of the other girls, I’d probably be rooting around and trying to make sense of it, too.

The Latinas are loading wooden crates of vegetables while smoking when Bennett approaches.

Oh, there we go. Yup. There are those fresh vegetables in wooden crates. I remember ridge cut, bright orange carrots, and I remember snot-green limp-ass green beans, and I remember watery corn, and I remember iceberg lettuce with never a tomato to be seen, but I never saw one damn fresh vegetable the entire time I was there. And again, here are these chicks just hanging out near the loading dock having a cigarette, like its high school. Look out, Betty and Veronica! Mr. Weatherbee might catch you, and then you might get detention, and then mom and dad won’t let you go to homecoming and then you’ll just die!

(Vee and Black Cindy are discussing Black Cindy’s involvement in the cigarette business.)

Was there an equivalent to Vee? A leader who called a lot of shots?

Well, kind of, but not to this extent. And with this lady, it’s like, she just got there and she’s working in the commissary, which is really bizarre. People get to work in the commissary after they have a few years of spotless time on their record. At least that’s how it was when I was in prison. Another thing to consider is that Vee managed to get this whole crew together within a month or so. And look, people are in and out of prison so often that there isn’t really time to manipulate a trusted lieutenant into place, you know?  There were popular girls, and a lot of the popular girls were both smart and smart enough to not lord that fact over the other prisoners. But I don’t know about leaders, really.

Piper, Daya, and Morello are working on the newsletter. Piper is making a point with the aid of a pair of pink scissors.

Ok, listen, again, it’s TV. I know that. But for the sake of consistency, can we at least wake up to the fact that if the prison is going to freak out and lock everybody in their cell over a missing screwdriver, they sure as hell aren’t going to let a bunch of prisoners chill in the library alone with scissors and X-Acto knives and all the stuff they need for this newsletter.

They apparently do in minimum security federal prison.

Man, must be nice. But that brings up a question. If Vee is this hard-ass heroin dealer, what the hell is she doing in minimum security federal prison? They’d put her in maximum state prison. Come to think of it, so would a lot of these girls. What’s Star Trek doing in here? What’s American Pie doing in here? And the Jersey chick put a damn bomb underneath somebody’s car, and they just say, “OK, well, here’s a berth at military school, and you can keep your gaudy-ass Jersey girl sunglasses, and here are the keys to the van.” If those girls at Jessup got that kind of treatment they sure as hell wouldn’t have spent so much time in the legal section.

Read Susan's thoughts on episodes 1 and 2episodes 3 and 4episode 5episode 6, and episode 8.

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  • vanessa

    I want more! I hope you'll be doing the whole season.

  • Shannon

    I read every critique, I love your style & honesty. I totally agree about the lack of supervision! They all walk around doing their own thing; I understand it's supposed to be minimum security, but to my understanding it's not a free for all. In my oppinion, the first season was a little closer in terms of reality while still being clever and entertaining. I think the prison & inmates in the first episode of this season in Chicago was closer to what you describe and what women should continue to imagine prison when they do. ... Except the men and women mixing? What the fuck's up with that? They can sepperate them in the common area by houses, but not gender- that's where I call bullshit.
    Just for some of my perspective: I have been on the visiting side for the last 9 years, on and off; he's done mostly county time, one state bid in Florida (we live in Mass), since we've been together. He's been in and out since his early 20s & has done all sorts of time (prison & jail) across the country. We watched the first season together and loved it! He's reminded me, and I've said it to otherfriend/fans: it's fiction, they take liberties to make it entertaining; because if there's one thing that jail/prison is it's tedious and boring. That's something I wondered reading your thoughts- what other parts strike a chord? For him it was in the first season when "That 70's Show" (Alex- Laura Prepon) & "Slums of Beverly Hills" (Nicholes- Natasha Leone) are shoving saltines in their mouths trying to see how many they can fit: he said shit like that goes on all the time, because it's so fucking boring. I like how you mentioned at one point how the guards are likely to be peers, which can be a double edged sword. But you said they are universally hated, I know women are different from men, but there are a tincy fraction of genuine good COs, and if they are good and command respect they can be seen as good without strictly being weak. That being said I have found that the majority of female COs are hard ass bitches. Also- on the visiting end- visiting in prison was a million times better than county jail. Jail: sit on a stool, seperated by thick glass, talking on a corded phone that usually suck because people bang shit in jail, one hour if they give the full time... Prison (Fla gives state time for a year plus): we got a full day, we could hug and kiss upon coming and going, but had to sit opposite the rest of the time, we could go out into a yard and walk around, I could bring him cigarettes and cards as long as they were seeled when I brought them in he bought me lunch from the canteen- instant coffee and some pb crackers I think. Did I mention we go the whole day? We sat and talked for hours. We could have played games. They took our picture in front of a beach scene painted on the cement... Not saying I want him to go back to the Wewahitchka Work Camp, but it was better the Barnstable County Jail.
    Well, I went off on that more than I intended to, and I wanted to say so much more, but my computer is acting funky (Please forgive my spelling and grammar)
    Like I said: I Love this show; the characters are well drawn and I'm a sucker for a good back story, but it's not so real. ..

  • bo

    If she paid attention, Morello was likely thrown in for Fraud and not her stalking (which hardly ever holds up)/bomb attempt.
    Vee probably got a lighter sentence because she had a crooked cop on her side that probably fudged up the details of her arrest so she was an accomplice and not a drug kingpin. Plus she had plenty of men she could pin the blame on working under her.
    Nicky was from an AFFLUENTIAL rich background. her mom had a maid who practically raised her and lived seperately in her own sweet pad. So even if she was a drug user/pusher she was white and rich.

    Red is in a grey area. I imagine despite working for Mafia she was caught only as a non-violent off-hand accomplice.

    watch the damn show to its full? and Also a state prison is pretty different from a Min-Fed prison?
    Also its pretty well established that the prison is also lack in funds hence the low amount of jobs and Yoga/Newsletter/greenhouse crap is allowed if given the proper channels and requires minimum funding for their predicament.

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