Arts Desk

Susan K.’s Story: An Ex-Con Reviews Orange Is The New Black, Part VI

oitnb ep8My 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."

We've watched Season Two's episodes 1-7 together, and last night, we watched the eighth. For our last review, in the spirit of some of the show's most compelling moments—the characters' pre-prison backstories—Susan and I chatted about how she ended up addicted to heroin, robbing a dry cleaner, and getting sent to prison.

Here's our conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.

Episode 8, "Appropriately Sized Pots" 

Susan K: Dude, I love you, but this is the last one of these I’m going to do.

WCP: That’s fine. You’ve been really generous with your time. And I’m sure it isn’t easy to talk about this.

Well, it’s not that it’s hard to talk about. It’s cathartic. But I feel pretty stupid about a lot of it. Plus I’m worried about somebody out there putting two and two together, and then everybody knows [who I am], and then my business is fucked. I’ve worked my ass off, I’ve played it straight, and I have no intention of fucking up again. I wouldn’t even know how to fuck up anymore, you know? But people can be funny. I can just see the slow and steady drop-off of customers if they found about this.

I understand.

OK. Let’s watch this thing.

Can I ask you something that might be a little too personal?

You’ve heard about guards fingers in my butthole, dude. The Personal Rubicon has officially been crossed.

Why heroin? We’re both the same age. We both grew up hearing the horror stories. We both grew up listening to the same bands with the same dead singers and guitarists and all that. We both know what heroin does.

Huh. Well, the obvious answer is that it feels amazing. I’m going to assume that you’ve had an orgasm or two in your life?

Yes.

OK, well, your orgasm is bullshit. Heroin is a million times better than that. So there’s one reason.

What made you start using it?

Depression. Total, bottom-of-the-pit, pitch-black depression. I was just looking for anything that would make me feel something, and heroin sure as hell did that.

But weren’t you worried about overdoses? Or getting addicted?

Oh, I was way too smart for that to happen to me, dude. Way too smart. That was my thinking, anyway, that I was somehow too good to get addicted to the most addictive drug on earth. I thought I’d just skate by that particular hazard. Just like every other dumb-ass heroin addict in the world.

(Rosa is being informed by Healey that the government will not pay for her recommended cancer treatment and will instead continue with chemotherapy.)

What would happen when you would get sick in prison? Say, the flu or a bad cough or something?

We would have sick call. You had to put your name on a list at around 6 a.m., and then it would take anywhere from two days to a week for them to get to you.

Why was the wait so long? Were people always sick?

No, people were always bored, particularly in the winter when they never let us outside. If you were on the sick call list you ended up getting taken to a different building, which meant you got to go outside for a minute. They would take about six or seven people a day. A lot of it was break in the routine. There was this one woman who swallowed a bunch of tobacco just because she wanted to not spend the whole day in the same building again.

What were the doctors like?

They weren’t doctors, for one thing. They were nurse practitioners. Ugh, in fact there was this one greasy ponytail-wearing motherfucker, and he would, you know, touch you a little longer than you needed to be touched. It was pretty gross. I avoided sick call unless I really felt bad.

So the standard of care wasn’t great?

Oh, man, one day they just decided to switch me from Prozac to something cheaper. No taper-down period or anything like that, or any warning it was going to happen. It felt like I was tripping balls for about two weeks before I drifted back to relatively normal.

(In a flashback sequence, a young Rosa is robbing a bank with four accomplices.)

I want to talk about the robbery stuff.

Oh, Christ.

We don’t have to. But I’m trying to understand all this. You were in Virginia. Why start robbing places in Maryland?

The point wasn’t to rob places in Maryland. The point was to score heroin in Maryland.

I don’t understand.

Well, I’m not sure how it is now, because I’ve been clean for about 15 years, but back in my day getting heroin in Virginia was not easy. And our dealer got busted, and we were having a hard time finding a new hookup, and we heard that it was easy to score heroin in Baltimore. So my boyfriend did the classic after-school-special heroin addict move and stole a bunch of shit from his parents’ house, including two of his dad’s guns. He pawned everything but the guns. So we had our seed money, so to speak, and we went north to Baltimore.

Was it actually easier to get heroin there?

Oh, totally.  We got amazing heroin about five minutes after we passed that smokestack with “Baltimore” on the side of it. It felt like they were selling peanuts at a fucking baseball game. That's how low-key they were about it in Baltimore.

So, where does the whole armed robbery thing come in?

Well, here’s the problem. We were selling Virginia food stamps for cash to buy heroin, but we weren’t in Virginia any more. And eventually, we were running out of money. And going home wasn’t an option, because that bridge got burned when my boyfriend stole all that stuff from his dad. So in a moment of heroin-addict clarity, which is the exact opposite of regular clarity, we hit upon the idea that since we had guns, we could just rob people.

(One of Rosa’s accomplices has been shot and is dying in the back of the car as they speed away from the scene of the crime.)

Can you tell me anything about your boyfriend at the time?

Well, at a distance, I can tell you that he was the last one in a string of junkie fuckups that I formed a toxic codependent relationship with. But at the time he was, you know, everything. It’s weird how your relationships get really intense when you’re centering them on heroin. It permeates everything.

How so?

Oh, like, “Wow, this feels great, isn’t this great, oh God, I love you,” and then it’s “Oh no, we’re out, we can’t get sick this is just the worst thing ever,” and so on and so on.

(Piper is learning that her furlough request has been approved.)

We’ll get back to the robbery thing. I want to at least stay current with the episode.

Fire away, dude.

So is it true that nobody ever got a furlough?

Absolutely true. If somebody died, if somebody was sick, DoC had zero fucks to give.

But you managed to get a weekend pass out. How did that work?

Well, technically that wasn’t a furlough. That was part of the “ease the non-fuckups back into society” program that they had going on at Patuxent.

Were some of the women mad at you like they are at Piper, here?

Some of them were. But most of them were trying to get me to bring shit back for them.

Contraband?

Believe it or not, no. There was a list of nonperishable items that I was able to bring in. Like, little bottles of hot sauce and candy. There was a limit to what I was allowed to bring back in, and if I made a list and let them know ahead of time what I was bringing back, it was OK. So because of that, a lot of girls were trying to get on my good side. I bought this one lady this little bottle of Texas Pete, and she said “I will fucking kill anyone who looks at you funny.” I think she meant it.

What did you do on your weekend pass? Did you see your parents?

My dad was out of the country and my mom was about four states away. It was all pretty last minute. So they let me get a room at a Comfort Inn for the weekend. I had to call in at a specific time multiple times, but oh, dude, it might as well have been the Ritz, you know?

What did you end up doing on your free weekend?

I ended up calling this relatively normal, non-strung-out guy I knew, and invited him to come up and hang out. I’m not sure what he thought was going to happen, but I just tackled his ass the minute he came through the door. Did you ever see that movie from the '70s with John Travolta and Debra Winger, with the mechanical bulls?

Urban Cowboy?

Yeah. It was pretty much like that all weekend.

(Rosa is receiving chemotherapy. With the aid of a teenage accomplice, she sets up a plan to steal the wallet from a nurse.)

Did you guys do a lot of planning when you robbed those places?

Ha! No. And by the way, Bob fucking Woodward, I’d like to point out that you got something wrong. My boyfriend got arrested after he robbed the bank. I actually cased the place for him.

Oh, wow. OK. Sorry about that.

Oh, don’t worry. You couldn’t have possibly fucked up more than we did.

So tell me what happened.

OK, well, here is what you need to know. On the show here, Cancer Lady is, you know, sniffing the money, like she’d fuck it if she could, right? But love of money was not why we were doing these robberies. We needed heroin. We needed money. It wasn’t like we were yelling “Everybody down!” or any Hollywood shit like that. Dude, I hate guns.

What kind of guns did you have?

We had a piddly-ass little .22 revolver, and I think the other one was a little .32 that had five shots in the clip. It wasn’t like we were carrying serious firepower. I mean, yeah, we could have killed someone, but the idea that we were these hardened professionals is a fucking joke.

So there were three robberies altogether?

Yeah. And in terms of planning, it was like, “OK, that place looks good,” and then we’d sit outside of it for two hours trying to work up the balls. The first thing that we planned on robbing was this bank. And I went in there to “case it,” I guess, but, like, what the fuck did I know about it? I went in to the lobby and dicked around and sort of lingered, and I saw where the cameras were, and then I went back out to the car and told him. And then we sat around for another hour. And then we did the whole “Oh, baby, I love you so much. If I get caught, run—it was all for you” stuff. And then he got out of the car.

And then he robbed the bank?

No. He chickened out. He got five feet from the door and then went around the corner and held up a gas station that we knew nothing about. Then he came back and we got the fuck out of there.

How much money did you make from that?

I think about $130. Enough to get some dope and a fleabag hotel room. So, you know, mission accomplished.

And what was the next one?

Yeah, that was the dry cleaner. That was the next day. And that was when I went in and did it.

Why a dry cleaner?

I just thought those places always had a lot of cash. I don’t know where I got that idea. It was like the same deal. We sat outside and worked up the nerve, and after a while I started to feel that creeping [dope] sickness, just right around the edges. And that was enough to get me in there. But even then I couldn’t just do it. I did this whole song and dance with the lady in there about the best way to clean a sequin dress while I worked up the nerve. Then I finally pulled the gun out and asked for money. I asked rather than demanded. Wasn’t that nice of me?

How much money did you get?

$78.

Jesus Christ.

I know! We were fucking terrible! So, that night it was heroin but no fleabag motel. So then we were like, well, we have to do the bank now. Because we realized that this sort of thing was unsustainable. So we went back to the same bank, because, you know, I had “cased” it, whatever the hell that meant.

So you didn’t go in for the robbery?

No. We left our car about four miles away, and we took the bus to the neighborhood. We made plans to meet at this one place afterwards at a certain time. So I went to a Rite-Aid and bought some shitty dye and did it up in a gas station bathroom, and then I went to Barnes and Noble and waited. And that was where they busted me.

Do you know what happened?

He went in, showed a gun, got about three grand, and made it about a half a block. I’m not positive about this, but I think I might have heard that he actually ran into a fucking light pole. At least that’s the gist I got later on when the cops were, like, crowing about the whole thing. Some cops do that, you know? Like when you fuck up, they come in and sort of do this recap thing, where they tell you exactly how you fucked up and how they caught you, and they’re always smiling, and the punchline is always “Boy, you folks picked the wrong county!” and all that shit. It’s just sort of rooster behavior. By then I was getting sick, so I didn’t even care.

I thought bank robbery was a federal crime. How come the FBI didn’t come in?

Actually, we thought that’s what was going to happen too. When the cops were doing their recap, they were saying things like “Well, the feds are coming for you now!” And then about 45 minutes later I heard them say “Yeah, the feds aren’t coming.” They sounded kind of disappointed.

So why didn’t the feds come?

Well, when the feds involve themselves with bank robbery cases, it’s usually people who actually know how to rob banks. I mean, the FBI wasn’t going to waste time and money worrying about Junkie Jane and the Numbnuts Kid, you know? That money didn’t even get half a block. He had a .22 revolver with three bullets in it. He apparently hit a light post. I was reading an article on fucking Third Eye Blind when they nabbed me. We weren’t exactly hardened criminals.

So, from all this, the girls in jail and then prison thought you were a professional bank-robber?

Oh, totally, dude. I absolutely have that stupid local “Action News” mentality to thank for that. The girls in jail and prison always watched the local news on Fox, and the way they ran that story, it was like me and my boyfriend were fucking Bonnie and Clyde. I never let the girls in jail or prison think any differently.

How did the police find out who you were?

Well, the sexy version is that he ratted me out. But what really happened was that we were so fucking codependent and completely fucked up that once they got him in there he kept saying “Can you please tell my girlfriend where I am? Please? I need her to know where I am.”

Yeah. The psychosis ran pretty fucking deep. So they got my name from him, and then they nabbed me, and then they brought in the dry-cleaner lady, so that was one charge, and then they brought in the employees at the bank who all remembered me dicking around in the lobby, and that was another, and that was it. For just a little over 200 bucks, we both went away for five years.

Were you pissed at him?

I was at first. God, do you want to hear something fucked up? I actually tried to split on him the night before we went on our little dumb-ass crime spree.

Really?

Yeah. He was nodded out, and I told him I was going to get cigarettes, and I actually went to a payphone and called like five different people. My mom, my dad, my sister, and like, two friends. None of them were home. If they had answered, I would have begged for them to wire me bus fare, with an added heroin tax, and I would have scored, and I would have gotten on the bus, and I would have left my boyfriend without even thinking about it. I know I would have. But nobody answered. So I went back to the shitty room we were in, and that was it. You know, it sounds weird to say, but prison saved my life.

How so?

Well, let’s say dad answers, and I get the money and I go home. I would have just ended up back on heroin. I would have kept that shit up for who knows how long, and I would have ended up dead, or with HIV, or something else just fucking terrible. Instead I did the stupid fucking robberies, and got five years, and I had no choice but to get clean. Plus, there isn’t a lot to do in prison, so you have a lot of time to think. Not to mention, I started to realize the advantages I actually did have on the outside. I had a lot that most of the other prisoners didn’t. I had a support system. I had a family that miraculously still loved me. That helped me stay straight when I got out. That was really important.

(Caputo is going through Red’s greenhouse.)

Dude, do you even give a shit about this show anymore?

Not really. I think we’re done. Thanks for telling me your story. 

No problem.

Read Susan's thoughts on episodes 1 and 2episodes 3 and 4episode 5episode 6, and episode 7.

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Comments

  1. #1

    This woman is one of the best features to come out of the City Paper in a long time. Can we have her back as an occasional columnist? You know, to talk shit about local politicians and horrible bars and millenials and yoga and gentrification and art shows and dance halls? I'd read it.

    Also, did you really not think to give her an alias (rather than her first name and last initial) before you started? That seems pretty freakin' dumb.

  2. #2

    I really appreciate Susan taking the time to share her perspective. I do think your intro should have emphasized that she served in a different type of penitentiary, though. Her commentary isn't just a snarky examination of "Hollywood v. reality," it's eye-opening commentary on the vast differences between state/federal and minimum/maximum security prisons, and how much rides on how the specific way someone is charged for a crime.

    I think that's what she really ended up critiquing, anyway. I acknowledge that aspects of OINTB are purely fictional, but I don't think yoga classes and choosing seats in the mess hall rank among them. I'm under no illusions about the system, either - my father died in a max state prison due to undiagnosed lung cancer, after years of being told he was coughing up blood from "persistent bronchitis." That was only a few years ago. It's shocking and disturbing to compare that to the privileges and basic humanity afforded to prisoners in federally funded institutions, but both extremes exist.

  3. #3

    Thanks to Susan K and to the author for this. If I lived in the US, I'd spend money at Susan's business and buy any books she decides to write! This was great. :)

  4. #4

    These articles are brilliant and so honest. I hope no one finds out who "Susan" really is. People are very judgemental.

  5. #5

    Read this because I was a huge fan of the series. Although Susan obviously is not, I think her wit is just as hilarious - I really did laugh out loud at some of her responses. I appreciated her honesty and point of view - interesting to hear what she thought was realistic and what wasn't. If she wrote a book, I would read it. Good for her for coming through such a difficult experience and learning from it; hoping her streak of better fortunes continues. Sad to see this series end as I was really enjoying reading it but I hope Susan's life stays well.

  6. Christina Cauterucci
    #6

    Hi Jane,

    "Susan K." is a pseudonym, not the critic's real name and initial. So glad you liked the series!

  7. #7

    Love the OITNB series, even more so this second year, yes it is fictitious, the characters such a wonderful conundrum..
    On one hand they make the show laughable and absurd all while being human and fragile. Isn't that why the prison is filled with the inconsistencies mentioned? I believe the perfect balance has been struck for longevity.

    I equally enjoyed the critique by "Susan K" she has a real life grit and depth of experience (and a true sense of comedic timing) I agree with some of the other comments in that I think she should try writing a book.
    Good luck to you "Susan K" you desire all the best in life !!

  8. #8

    Woah, this is some good stuff. I guess I'm never trying heroin for kicks until I'm aged 87.

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