Orange is the new black - The Litchfield Exposé - Trust No Guard
As a child growin up in Bavaria, Germany, I was taught to think of the police as “dein Freund und helfer” – your friend and helper. Back then, police officers were portrayed as friendly neighbourhood characters everyone knew and respected and turned to for help when things got rough. Posters in local police departments sported friendly officers posing with much the same smile as the famous 70’s kid on the Kinder chocolate packets, thus exuding a sense of trust and security. Society taught us to look up to them as heroes and do-gooders and for the most part, I believed they were exactly that.
Sure they were a drag at times, but they were just doing there job and, if you treated them with respect, you could even reason with them. I often questioned the arrests over a crumb of weed, or fining a singer-songwriter for cracking a joke about the Minister President of Bavaria. I never questioned the officers issuing said arrests doing so in anything other than a decent manner. All in all, I had respect for the authorities; afterall, it can’t be easy patrolling the Oktoberfest. But then my teenaged cousin was accused of a crime he did not commit and slammed face down onto the icy concrete when he tried to, firmly but peacefully, protest his arrest. The situation was quickly cleared up and he was proven innocent. However, he still faced a charge for calling them fascists after one of the two officers had dislocated his jaw.
Fourteen years and two countries later, it’s clear Germany isn’t the only country employing little men with big guns and strong fists to abuse their authorative power rather than establish a system in which the public feels safe to call 911. For years now, America has taken the centre stage when it comes to police brutality, particularly when it comes to violence brought on by racial prejudice. But now, movements such as #BlackLiveMatters, dashboard cams and social media are bringing these issues to the public and it is becoming harder for authorities to brush things under the carpet in an attempt to keep us all ignorant to the real stories behind unjustified arrests ending in fatalities. We have finally been made aware of what happens at the scene of an arrest, an interrogation and the time spent behind bars; we have finally understood that we have been putting our half-hearted faith into a system that can no longer be trusted. Not with our safety and not with our lives.
Orange is the New Black has reverberated this need for public awareness, justice and basic human rights in its strongest season to date. Although the series has always shown an authentic knack for social commentary and sparking dialogues about socio-political and cultural issues relevant of our time, previous seasons seemed to have skirted the safer grounds of a serious narrative in comparisson to the loud cries of inequity, humiliation and inhumanity still echoing through my brain as I am mourning the death of one of my favourite characters and the end of a season so powerful I am still reeling.
Now a privatised prison owned by the MCC corporation, Litchfield Penitentiary has packed an extra one hundred inmates into an already overcrowded space by cutting costs at the expense of the women’s general health and well-being. Mealtimes are now taken in shifts, the bathrooms are filled beyond maximum capacity, the comissary can’t keep up with the demand and personal space is almost impossible to come by, leaving inmates to resort to building forts and time-machines. It is becoming increasingly difficult to while away the time thanks to limited jobs and leisure activities, and it’s even harder to go about daily routines without bumping heads with someone else. Frustrations are running understandibly and extremely high amongst the inmates and the inexperienced veterans hired to maintain order are overwhelmed with their responsibilities and clearly not trained to conduct themselves properly in their positions.
The guards at Litchfield can be split into two categories. There are those who genuinely care for the well-being of the ladies but may be a little too wet behind the ears when it comes to establishing clear work ethics and appropiate relationships. And then, there are those who may have started out with good intentions but quickly allowed themselves to get drunk on their power and now use inmates as their personal outlet for sexual and violent frustrations. Unfortunately, the Caputos within the Litchfield Penitentiary have become a minority; bearded, woman-hating giants and (un)apologetic rapists now rule the majority. In a dangerous, difficult environment, the women no longer have anyone to turn to for saftey and support. Even a broken man like Healy would have been a welcome refuge, but his own personal issues and the new “pet-nut” he has found in Lolly have finally robbed him of hope.
With the inmates now piled into two bunkbeds per miniscule living quarter and feeding on what looks – and surely tastes – like regurgitated food, tensions are rising. Though there has always been a clear racial divide amongst the inmates, thus far it has never resulted in a hostile environment and multi-culti tables were still a thing. Enter a White Power group and a new taste for gang mentality and, within a matter of a few weeks, the Litchfield paradigm has shifted drastically. Piper got what she asked for when she challenged her fellow inmates by embracing her Hollywood idea of thug life and rubbed up the real gangsters in the process. And while her childish antics may have worked for her in the short-term, they are making her face dire long-term consequences. And this time her blonde hair and cute smile won’t do shit to help her.
But there is one “inmate” who is getting away with everything for one simple reason: she is a privileged white woman with celebrity status. Judy King, the arrival of which was highly anticipated by her loyal Litchfield fans in the previous season, enjoys VIP treatment in her comfortable, spacious abode. While Maritza is forced by a guard to eat a live baby mouse at gunpoint, Judy sips on herbal tea served in actual cups and munches on cookies presented on actual plates. While Sophia was shipped off to the SHU for her own protection after being attacked by a group of transphobic inmates, King gets her own private bodyguard and meals delivered to her room when her racist eighties’ puppet show sparks an outrage on the outside as well as the inside world.
The big suits at MCC are doing everything in their power to keep Judy shielded from the real, day-to-day going ons in prison, fully aware of the fact she has the ability to bring them down once and for all. Seemingly oblivious to the inhumane affairs playing out right outside her hotel-like room, she treats her sentence like a wild vacation complete with MDMA fuelled three-somes and shameless publicity stunts designed to help no one other than herself. She is not exposed to Piscatella and his team of guards reigning terror and shattering eardrums with the use of stadium horns; she is not groped, raped or humiliated by them. And when she witnesses her supposed friend and fellow-inmate being killed by a guard during an outbreak of chaos, she decides against using her status to get the truth to the public, she decides against pulling the many strings she has been known to pull in order to achieve justice. Instead, she is set to exit Litchfield and ready to wash her hands clean of the whole “experience”, ready to go back to living her luxurious lifestyle and funding urban development projects, rather than stand by the people she had called her friends only minutes ago.
In earlier seasons, we have already come to know guards like Pornstache and Coates, but the guards that have been introduced this season take their lust for violence and degredation to a whole other level. These are the type of men who use their positions to exploit and abuse vulnerable women for no reason other than that they can. They can, because they have a whole support system of suits to fall back on should things ever get confrontational. They may not have been trained to carry out their jobs correctly and humanely, but they sure as hell have been trained to spin a story to make it come out in their favour. Brainwashed members of the public are still prone to side with a guy in uniform over an inmate in a jumpsuit, no matter how many flaws there are to the story. Especially if said inmate is African American.
Storylines may have been a bit unfocused throughout but, all in all, this season has been the best on Orange is the New Black so far. It perfectly mirrors our current “political” climate and our continuing realization that authority figures aren’t necessarily friends or helpers. Season four strips the Litchfield woman of their basic human rights . A woman’s right to affordable tampons and sanitary towels; a woman’s right to protection and the security of not having to live in fear of sexual preditory and violence; the right to be heard and supported when she’s asking for help; the right to leave this life with dignity and love. The Litchfield women were on a clear mission this season: they felt it was time for us to know what it feels like to actually experience the stories we read about every day; they wanted us to see what it feels like when you’re no longer treated like a human being. And thanks to their outstanding performances, that we did.
Poussey was showing no form of actual aggression as she tried to get the guard away from Suzanne, who was clearly having an episode. And yet, he tackled her to the ground and pinned her down with his knee firmly planted on her neck. She struggled, desperately trying to get his attention as he dug his weight deeper and deeper into her back until she suffocacted. She suffocacted by the hands of an officer; just like Eric Garner. And after the food hall is cleared out and MCC try to cook up a story that makes her look like a thug in order to justify her death, she is left to lay there for hours covered in a simple white sheet, her shoes still poking out from beneath it; just like Michael Brown’s body was left on the street for four and a half hours before it was taken to the morgue. And when Caputo makes his statement in front of the camera and defends the officer without once mentioning Poussey’s name, we are reminded of Sandra Bland and the media’s attempt to keep the murder of a black woman under wraps, the way it has done with so many others before.
Under the tyranny of Piscatella’s crew, the ladies of Litchfield join together again in one solid formation. Their peaceful protest failed horrifically, but they’re ready now, weaponed with grief and an outrage that can no longer be silenced. They may be of different cultures and heritage, they may have different norms and values. But in this place they are all one; they are all united in their pain, and it is this emotional and physical suffering that brings them together as a united front in their fight for justice. One pleading voice may be drowned out by the government and the corporate masses, but it’s hard to ignore hundreds of voices carrying through the prison walls, the towns, the villages, the suburbs, the cities and the world. And that’s exactly what Orange is the New Black aims to do here: they want to remind the audience that they have not forgotten. The fight is far from over but they will not back down until their voices have been heard – and they are urging the world to do the same.
Commissioned by Paste Magazine