“Hellhole,” The New Yorker‘s investigation into the world of solitary confinement
One of the most disturbing scenes in the entirety of the first season of OITNB is when Piper is unceremoniously dumped in solitary confinement — or as the inmates call it, “SHU” (Special Housing Unit) — and has a terrifying conversation with another inmate through the grate, wherein she learns the food is practically inedible, she could be held there indefinitely, and the lights never are turned off. This upsetting scene lead us to investigate its accuracy, only to find that the reality of solitary confinement is even worse than the way it is portrayed. This comprehensive New Yorker article from 2009 details how being cut off from all social contact and confined in a small space is the equivalent of any other psychological or physical torture in the long term impact it has on a person’s ability to function in the outside world. Author Atule Gawande describes the results of research on the neurological impact of solitary confinement as such:
The recordings revealed brain abnormalities months afterward; the most severe were found in prisoners who had endured either head trauma sufficient to render them unconscious or, yes, solitary confinement. Without sustained social interaction, the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic injury.
The United States seems to be the only western country who still thinks that this is a good idea: at the time of this piece, over 25,000 prisoners were in solitary. Other countries have come up with more creative solutions to isolating problematic prisoners behavior, like the UK, who as Gawande describes has taken the controversial step of giving violent prisoners more control over their lives instead of less, to great success. In any case, it’s clear that this form of imprisonment is a massive problem that our society must face, and we should be grateful it was brought to light in a way that allowed so many people to empathize.
But I’m a Cheerleader (dir. Jamie Babbit)
On a less depressing note, one of the greatest delights of watching OITNB is the diverse cast, many of whom were relatively obscure before the show. We looked around for the past sucesses of the actors and found that one of our favorites, Natasha Lyonne, who plays the ex-heroine addict Nicky, starred in the campy cult-comedy from 1999, But I’m A Cheerleader, which followed the unfortunate Megan Bloomfield (Natasha Lyonne), who is sent to an over-the-top homosexual rehab (another unfortunately unbelievable reality) and ends up finding love. It’s a hilarious satire and totally work checking out for those who’ve become enamored with Lyonne’s charming Nicky.
This American Life‘s coverage of the American prison system
Ok, we’ll admit it: Ira Glass is our dream man. We have always been huge fans of the fantastic NPR program This American Life, which reports with brilliance and incredible empathy on stories as wide-ranging as frat partiers at Penn State to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. So we were quite excited to see a clear representation of the show’s host Ira Glass as a plot point on OITNB, as Piper’s fiancé continued his lame exploitation of her story for his personal career gain. What’s much better, though, is This American Life’s real-life coverage of the many faces of the sprawling American prison system. There was their entire show in 1999 dedicated to documenting the expanding prison population, the heart strings-tugging episode in 2002 which followed a group of prisoners performance of Act V of Hamlet, and the more recent show which in 2010 featured a story of a prisoner in California serving a life sentence who was up for a (albeit low) chance at actually getting out. One of the many great things about This American Life is that all 15 years’ worth of episodes are available to listen to for free online, and we’d highly recommend you do so.
Weeds, created by Jenji Kohan
We know that by now you would have had to be living under a rock (or maybe in prison) for the last almost-decade to have missed the buzz surrounding the suburban-mom-turned-drug-dealer tale that Mary Louise Parker brought to life in her role as an increasingly terrible mother on the acclaimed Showtime drama Weeds. A big part of the reason we decided to watch OITNB in the first place was that it shared a creator with our loved marijuana-drama. So in case you were doing time, we’ll reiterate: check this show out (come on, it’s on Netflix). But maybe stop after the fourth season (that’s about when it jumped the shark).
The House I Live In (dir. Eugene Jarecki)
It’s common knowledge now that “The War On Drugs” has been a disaster of beyond epic proportions, and this documentary is an in depth exploration of just how destructive it has been. It’s essential viewing for anyone who cares about the ongoing suffering of America’s poor at the hands of ineffective and prejudiced laws and policies.
Hustle & Flow (dir. Craig Brewer)
Everyone remembers the 2006 Academy Awards, which featured a surprise win for the hip-hop group Three 6 Mafia’s “It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp,” a performance which went on to become legend. What we didn’t realize at the time was that supporting actress Taryn Manning, who played one of Terrence Howard’s pimp’s prostitutes, would go on to play the most compelling anti-hero in the Litchfield Prison of OITNB, the cult-leader and converted Christian fundamentalist Tiffany “Pensatuckey” Doggett. Aside from its great soundtrack, the film is a compelling portrayal of the intersection of poverty and the musical legacy of Memphis.
Inside: Life Behind Bars in America by Michael G. Santos
One of many books about the current state of American incarceration, Inside is unique in that it’s written by someone who has spent enough time inside to be a true expert on the subject. Michael Santos paints a picture of a complex and disturbing system that OITNB only begins to capture.
Carandiru (dir. Hector Babenco)
Despite the fact that this haunting, beautiful film, set in a now-demolished prison in São Paulo, Brazil (and based on true events), takes place outside the United States, it has a more in common with OITNB than most of our other recommendations. The tone the film sets — a mixture of the joy, terror, and tragedy of the prisoners and the riot and massacre it brings to life — is similar to the serious yet comedic tone that Jenji Kohan is able to cultivate in her series. The film even uses flashbacks as a way to humanize the prisoners and tell their stories. We would strongly encourage that everyone watch this film, which has deep ramifications for the rights of prisoners and all humans the world over.
Regina Spektor – “Samson”
Here’s something we DON’T like about OITNB: the theme song. Actually, we skip it every time. It’s strange, considering that we usually quite like Regina Spektor, who wrote the song especially for its use in the show. So let’s not let this annoying song ruin our relationship with its author. Flavorwire’s Music Editor Tom Hawking points to Spektor’s breakthrough album from 2006, Begin To Hope, as a good place to start.
Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian by Avi Steinberg
Avi Steinberg recounts his time as the librarian for a tough Boston prison, which lead him to places he never would have guessed (including being robbed by a recently paroled ex-con). For a different perspective from someone with a unique experience with inmates, this book is a great read.
Laura Prepon on That 70s Show
And now for something completely different: as most of us who have owned a television in the last 15 years probably noticed, Piper’s ex-lover and the woman who “ruined her life,” Laura Prepon, seemed a bit familiar. If you haven’t caught on, it’s because she starred in the long-running and sometimes hilarious sitcom That 70s Show, which should probably be viewed by everyone at some point for both comedic and anthropological value.
Al Jazeera on the California Prisoners’ Hunger Strike
It was unfortunately difficult to find major media coverage on the hunger strike which is still ongoing for dozens of prisoners in California. This article on Al Jazeera does a good job summing up why the prisoners are striking, how seriously this is impacting the people participating, and what California has done to address it (spoiler alert: it involves force feeding). Definitely a story that anyone concerned about the U.S. prison state should be following.
It Don’t Gitmo Better Than This: Inside The Dark Heart of Guantanamo Bay, an illustrated essay by Molly Crabapple
Originally a U.S. Naval Base on the soil of a country we’ve derided for more than half a century for their lack of “democratic ideals,” at this point most of the country has come to the consensus that the prison that houses “enemy combatants” in the otherwise beautiful Guantanamo Bay needs to go. And yet, it still hasn’t. Artist and activist Molly Crabapple reports to VICE through both drawings and prose on the injustices she saw and the people she talked to on her visit to the notorious prison built during the Bush administration. It’s a must read, and a visceral reminder that the Home Of The Free is not the best at practicing what we preach.
Michelle Hurst on Law & Order
We love that OITNB refuses to pigeonhole its characters as good or bad, sad-sack or villianess. Michelle Hurst as Miss Claudette embodies a women who is many people simultaneously: the angry Haitian bunkmate, the OCD mistress of cleaning girls, the spurned lover, the murderer for a good cause. It turns out she was similarly many women on the various Law & Order franchises — she literally played eight different roles. See if you can spot her killing it metaphorically as a social worker or public defender on SVU.
The Farm: Life Inside Angola (dir. Liz Garbus, Wilbert Rideau, Jonathan Stack)
An award-winning documentary that follows the heart-wrenching stories of six inmates living in the oldest and biggest American penal colony — and you can watch the whole thing online.
No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row by Susan Kuklin
A depressing but compelling read, No Choirboy chronicles the lives of teenage inmates living on death row, exploring the inequalities that frequently lead them there.
Michael Harney on Deadwood
You don’t need an excuse to watch the incredible HBO drama Deadwood, but in case you haven’t started yet, veteran TV actor Michael Harney (who is prison director and Piper’s sometimes friend Sam Healy) plays Steve Fields.
Soledad Brothers: The Prison Letters of George Jackson by George Jackson
A collection of the letters of Black Panther George Jackson, who died in prison in the 1960s, and portrait of American racism at the time, this book depicts the struggle of a man who kept his ideals alive even while incarcerated.
Into the Abyss (dir. Werner Herzog)
This harrowing film follows two men convicted of a triple homicide: one receives a death sentence, and one gets life in prison. It’s a disturbing exploration of the consequences of capital punishment in America and highly worth your time.
Tracy Takes On…
This show allowed the always-brilliant Tracy Ullman to shine as a variety of crazy characters; what you may have not known is that Jenji Kohan was one of the writers. We were happy to watch it again.
The most obvious predecessor to OITNB was HBO’s first original drama series, Oz. It might not be as universally acclaimed as their later programs, but it’s still totally worth a watch. The show also took place at an upstate New York prison based on a real place. It’s not as holistic of a look at the dynamics of a typical prison, but it was certainly a smart, intense show that addressed many issues faced by real prisoners.
This Mother Jones article on Cece McDonald
One of the best things that has resulted from the popularity of OITNB is that it has raised awareness of the plight of trans* people in prison. There are all kinds of different problems trans* people face — whether it’s being put in the wrong gender prison, or, in the case of Cece McDonald, being put in prison at all. Cece killed a man for attacking her on the basis of her race and was convicted of second degree murder for it. She’s still in prison (a men’s prison), and anything that can bring light to her case is a great thing.
Education of a Felon: A Memoir by Edward Bunker
Edward Bunker was the youngest prisoner ever at California’s notorious San Quentin at 17, and went on to be one of the most prolific prison novelists and screenwriters. In this memoir he finally tells his own story, and it’s a tale just as compelling as any of his fiction.
Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing by Ted Conover
Finally, this book by a former prison guard at Sing Sing illustrates that, as is made clear on OITNB, prison guards are as much a part of prison culture as anyone else, and they have a unique viewpoint from which to observe the politics and dynamics that make prison what it is.